Culture and climate go hand in hand
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Culture and climate go hand in hand


Nestled between Jakarta's high-rise buildings are 'kampung' settlements, where traditional construction and community life offer lessons for today. (Photo: Johannes Widodo)
Nestled between Jakarta's high-rise buildings are 'kampung' settlements, where traditional construction and community life offer lessons for today. (Photo: Johannes Widodo)

To move forward we need to look back. The clues towards a sustainable future are hidden in our heritage.

Mankind has been heedlessly defiling the natural environment in which we live. Our dependence on plastics and our fishing techniques endanger the oceans as habitats for marine life. Our excessive consumption of beef fills the atmosphere with climate-warming methane. Our combustion of fossil fuels renders the air noxious. Extreme weather is becoming the norm. Humanity's ways of living are too often unsustainable.

To cope with the consequences of our feckless behaviour, we need to find "cleaner" technologies, and we need to change the ways we live. But how?

We tend to overlook the cultural wisdom of our ancestors. Especially here in Southeast Asia, our cultural and natural heritage contains so much that can help combat climate change and help us live with its consequences. For our Southeast Asian ancestors, taking care of natural resources was second nature. Conservation was something passed down from generation to generation. People and communities relied on this wisdom to ensure their survival.

Conservation means retaining the legacies of the past for the benefit of future generations. Heritage is what we inherit from the past, experience today, and pass on to our children and grandchildren. These legacies do not belong to us, but they are in our care for a short time. We have a responsibility to look after them well. Our ancestors understood this, but we have forgotten this fundamental truth.

The way we live our lives, and especially the way we consume the products and resources of the planet, have a direct impact on the climate in ways that we often fail to notice. For example, we consider it normal and acceptable to demolish older buildings as part of urban development. We don't stop to think that this habit is just as damaging to the environment as cutting down trees or setting fire to a forest. Knocking down an old building wastes resources and releases climate-warming pollutants.

In Southeast Asia, we are used to typhoons, earthquakes, and the droughts and floods of the fickle monsoon. The modern way to cope with the violence of nature is to invest in strong, expensive structures that can withstand the fiercest winds or earthquakes. This is the technological solution.

But it rarely works in the long term because nature is relentless. Our ancestors understood this and found ways to live with it. The communities living in areas subject to seasonal flooding in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand built their houses on stilts and made sure they had boats to carry goods to sell at the water markets.

Japanese people, in their traditional way of life, endure the coldest winter in wooden houses with thin paper walls. They eat hot pot dishes and drink warm sake. They dress in thick kimonos and sit around the kotatsu -- a low wooden table, covered by a blanket and heated from below. In the past, the table's heat source was charcoal, though today electric heaters are used. In Japan's sweltering summer, people stay cool by wearing thin cotton yukata robes. They eat cooling foods, such as kakigori, a shaved ice dessert. They hang a metal or glass furin chime at the window because its sound is refreshing.

To save the only earth we have, we need to learn from this kind of cultural wisdom. Education must teach not only skills and techniques. It must ensure that the next generation understands how fragile our world is. Youngsters should learn that we all have duties as members of communities and as global citizens to be responsible stewards of resources.

There is nothing new about this idea. Over a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the US and a conservation pioneer, said: "Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognise the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land, but I do not recognise the right to waste them or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."

This thinking is now much more important than in Roosevelt's time because of climate change. The conservation of physical heritage, especially major buildings and infrastructure, is crucial. Good historical conservation projects are environmentally sustainable, socially responsible, culturally authentic, economically viable, and materially suitable.

All UN member countries have recognised 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a roadmap for a better future. The 11th goal is to create "sustainable cities and communities". One of the routes towards that goal is: "Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage."

Today we tend to think in a linear way. But we must learn to take a circular approach, like our ancestors in Southeast Asia. In a circular economy, products and services are redesigned to use fewer resources and to reuse resources. A circular mind always considers responsibility, resisting, reducing, returning, repairing, reusing, recycling, restoring, respecting, and reaching out.

In January there will be a conference in Bangkok addressing these issues. The speakers, drawn from all around Southeast Asia, have personal experience in managing natural resources and conserving heritage. Panels will cover topics such as "Spiritual Connections to Nature and to Climate Change Action" and "Traditional Political/Social Heritage and Climate Resilience".

Perhaps most important are 16 youth delegates from all Asean member countries. These youths are deeply involved in these issues, and they will propose practical plans for the region's future. The event, titled "Cultural Wisdom for Climate Action: The Southeast Asian Contribution", is organised by the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Alliance (SEACHA), and will be held from Jan 12 to 14 at the Siam Society. Come to the conference and join us in taking care of our shared home. Let's use insights from heritage to work together in creating a sustainable future.

Johannes Widodo, PhD, is a professor at the National University of Singapore and an advisory board member of the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Alliance (SEACHA). Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to promote public awareness and discussion on sustaining the architectural and cultural heritage of Thailand and the region. Each column is written by a different contributor. The views expressed here are those of the author.

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