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An Open Letter to the 21st Century Illiterate

TEDx Universiti Brunei Darussalam

4 March 2023

"The world is in a big mess and most of us are either ignorant about it or are plain right ignoring the problem altogether because we are not the ones facing the consequences."

What does it mean to be an illiterate in the 21st Century? With the world moving towards digital technology and the Metaverse, does it mean that we all need to be able to code in order to be considered a literate?

If you were to ask Google for the definition of a 21st Century Illiterate, it would point to the famous quote by Alvin Toffler that says: “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write but those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.” We all know that Toffler was referring to the rapid changes that are going on in today’s world.

What if our house is on fire and we have no idea that the problem exists? Worse, what if we are aware of the fire situation but choose to ignore it? Does it not make us a far bigger illiterate than the above?

The fire that I’m alluding to, as you can guess, is the pressing issue of climate change that has gotten the attention of the world leaders with an increasing sense of urgency in the recent few years.

Does the solution to the problems solely lie in the hands of the world leaders? What responsibilities do each of us bear as citizens of the world?

Most importantly, what role does basic literacy of every person have to do with being a part of the solution to Climate Change?

Systemic Change vs Education

To illustrate my point, I want to share with you a story between my mum and I which some of you may relate to. My mother is obsessed with being organised. She would use the new plastic bags to compartmentalize all her belongings, those kinds of bags that you would use to pack fruits and vegetables in the supermarket.

Mum would have a roll of large, medium and small bags for different purposes; to keep leftover food, to wrap them as extra protection for important documents like our passports, school certificates and old photographs even if they are already secured in the envelopes. When mum travels, she would separate the underwear from the socks, formal wear from the T-shirts nicely tucked away in half a dozen of those bags. Her suitcase will always be impeccably organized, you will not miss anything with mum, you get the picture. But what gets me everytime is to find her using the plastic bags from the brand new rolls as the rubbish bag for the kitchen sink when she could easily be recycling the used ones to do the same job. The kitchen sink will always be the start of our never ending arguments about global warming.

I would try to explain to mum about the need to recycle, the pollution at the landfills and the everlasting lifespan of plastics. However, the very next day the pattern continued, rinse and repeat.

Before you cancel my mum - I want you to think about your inner circles. For every example of my mum, I am sure you can also relate this story to many of your family members who are just like her; some of the kindest and most well meaning people out there who can’t seem to be able to make the connection between their trivial action at home with the larger impact it has on the planet.

That being said, when we go shopping at the supermarket, mum would be the first to remind me to bring along a recycled carry bag from the car. Unfortunately, the solidary act of climate conservation my mum and most of the people - including myself, has got little to do with any altruistic motivation than the resistance to pay $2 for an overpriced recycled bag which we have been entitled to for free all our lives.

For those who are not familiar with public policy, this is a classic example of a Systemic Solution to a Systemic Problem.

The frustratingly inconvenient policy works far more effectively than any of the best education you can ever prescribe. $2 is all it takes to change a lifetime of bad habits.

Systemic Change 1: Education 0.

Why Does Education Matters More Than Ever Before?

You may ask: What then, is the role of education in solving climate change?

While I have my doubts about teaching old dogs new tricks, I am an eternal optimist in placing my hope of the future in the hands of the young people, simply because it is the world that they will inherit one day. If the youth are not the people with the highest sense of urgency and are the most concerned, who will?

I am convinced that education plays a pivotal role in moving the needle. But we need to play the long game, as opposed to measuring short term results. And it starts with making sure that every school teaches the cause, effect and solutions to climate change.

Here’s why?

If every child has access to education about sustainability the same way they would be exposed to math, physics and history in their studies, they will grow up with the value of protecting our planet deeply embedded in their DNA.

They will be the first generation who would require no convincing to do the right thing by the environment in their future undertakings. This is crucial because half the battle we are grappling with, with climate change today, is in trying to change the minds of the key decision makers today.

We will also be raising an entire generation of climate warriors who will not hesitate to call out bad practices and hold organisations accountable to any environmental foul play.

When they take positions in the government, they will be bound to make smarter, better decisions and produce the kind of policies required to shape a more desirable outcome for the planet and be an advocate for more responsible behaviors.

Instead of relying on adults for solutions, we need to get creative and look for answers from unexpected places. That includes encouraging our youth to take the lead and join the environment crusade in educating the adults about preserving the environment at home with everything that they learn in school.

While my mum may not necessarily have the patience to listen to all my idealistic aspirations, as a standing member of the helicopter parenting club, you can bet that I, for one, have the ears for my two daughters far more than I have for anyone else in this room.

The Climate Crisis | What is at Stake?

In case you wonder why I am making such a big fuss about my mum and her plastic bag obsessions, I hate to break it to you, the world is in a big mess. And most of us are either ignorant about it or are plain right ignoring the problem altogether because we are not the ones facing the consequences.

In 2012, World Bank commissioned a report that warns the world is on track to a 4°C world, if we continue to practice business as usual, through our quest for mass industrialisation, mindless consumptions and using the precious rivers as our sewage dump.

What’s the big deal about a 4 degree hike, you may ask? In the ebook published by the World Bank entitled Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided, it cited a 4°C world would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on ecosystems and associated services.

In other words. We are screwed.

Which is why The Paris Climate Accord targets the international community to cap the global temperature increase in this century to below 2C. To do that, we need to achieve Net Zero in our carbon emission by 2050. To do that, the world needs to reduce our carbon emissions by half in the next 10 years.

Ladies and gentlemen, 50% decrease in friggin 10 years. We are in an epic race against time. To echo a speech by Barack Obama who echoed an unnamed scientist- when he unveiled one of the biggest and most important climate change plans for America in 2105, he stated that: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of Climate Change and the last to be able to do something about it.”

The question is: What are YOU going to do about it?

Putting our best talents to fight the battle:

When I was growing up, the brightest and best would gravitate towards pursuing Law, Engineering and Medicine for their future career. In the last 10 years, the focus has shifted to Data Science and Computer Programming. Everyone wants to hit big in designing a tiny icon on our phone, and produce the next social media app so addictive that it would reward them billions - just like Mark.

Young people in this room, listen to this c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y: the world does NOT need another Facebook, IG or TikTok, so you can be better entertained while being seated on the toilet bowl. It’s about time you get serious with using your talent in areas needed to solve the planet’s most pressing problems.

Conclusion: What are Our Roles as Individuals?

Some of you may have taken offense by being labeled as a 21st Century Illiterate more than the very fact that your house is being set on fire. Truth is, there is a far greater problem at hand for us to solve together than to fight over our petty little differences with one another.

As you would probably have figured out by now, I am not a climate scientist, an inventor or a policymaker. Frankly, I should be the last person invited to talk about climate change amongst all the experts. We are in a critical race against time and we need people outside of the environmental profession as much as we need the insiders to give voice to this urgent matter.

First, by acknowledging that we were all illiterates at some point in time, and having the humility to learn and relearn and the courage to do something about it.

Much of what I suggested are easier said than done and literacy is just the first step, but definitely not a bad starting point.

Start by convincing your mum to change her version of plastic bag obsession. Less with your flowery words or global statistics because she will see right through it. You will achieve a far greater result than me, only if you go ahead and lead by example with actions rather than words.

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