Dr Lyana Khairuddin: Mindfulness in Times of Climate Crisis

Think City recently sat down for a conversation with Dr Lyana Khairuddin, who since this interview is now Political Adviser to the British High Commission, on how individuals, businesses and government must shift towards a more mindful mindset in these times of climate crisis. This interview does not represent the views of her current employers.

What are the issues related to climate change faced by Malaysians?

Dr Lyana Khairuddin: Poor planning has always been an issue with many cities worldwide, not just in Malaysia. In Klang Valley, the main issue I think is with public transportation.

This issue differs within pockets of communities; some can’t afford public transport, whereas others aren’t using public transportation because they can afford cars. This leads to increased traffic congestion and carbon emissions which contributes to the problem that is climate change.

Further, take the last mile connectivity. In London, people can walk home from their nearest tube station. Here, we can’t do that. There may be a highway in the way that you cannot cross on foot. That’s one of the biggest challenges to get more commuters using public transportation.

There is also mindfulness — Malaysians are selfish. We don’t appreciate sharing, or public amenities. We see that with many Malaysian littering or vandalising public spaces and amenities.

So there’s a mindset issue.

Yes. Especially since we’re talking about things like not having enough food or clean water sources because the climate is changing. We’re asking people to care about something that can’t really be seen yet.

I welcome the recent ban on single-use plastics – this should not just be for straws, but include cups, bags, etc. However, the supporting infrastructure has to be there. The issue needs to work on several levels: the individual, infrastructure, and policy.

People need to understand the harm of single-use plastics in exchange for convenience. The infrastructure must provide suitable alternatives, like biodegradable products. Policy-wise, the ban must be enforced — you can’t just give way whenever it isn’t implemented.

If we don’t start now, we won’t be sustainable when the climate crisis comes knocking at our doors. Mindsets need changing.

There should be more information about steps being taken to improve sustainability.

I’m a big fan of Doughnut Economics, a concept popularised by economist Kate Raworth, where economic growth is defined by providing social justice within an ecological ceiling; that is to allow economic growth, but mindfully plan the growth within what the planet can take. The push with Doughnut Economics is to go into a circular (or regenerative) economy.

Do we care about how much pressure we put on the planet? Where does our waste go? Plastics can now be broken down into biopolymers that are turned into clothes, something Adidas is doing with shoes and clothes. But where are these produced and processed?

Specific to Malaysia, we’re importing waste from the world. Do we actually have bioprocessing plants in Malaysia? If this is an industry Malaysia is taking on — the waste is already at our doorstep — why not have factories that can convert waste into new polymers that we can turn into clothing, or something that can be part of the circular economy?

It’s a massive conversation that I think we haven’t even started yet. It’s time to start.

In the Netherlands, they have factories that specifically recycle washing machines and fridges. Everything is salvaged into reusable plastic, and the end bits which remain are incinerated.

As a generation, we are now so used to throwing things out. We must learn to repair and repurpose things like our clothes and electronic gadgets again. This is part of the circular economy movement. We need to redefine capitalism, as exemplified by economist Mariana Mazzucato in her works.

The issue of sustainability is massive, but it all begins somewhere.

Everything begins with a single spark.  It’s always the individuals that are going to make change, I believe. It only took a few people in Malaysia saying “tak nak straw”, and now Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Labuan and Selangor have implemented a ban on plastic straws.

Until we have economies of scale, how do we talk with businesses about investing in higher costs?

It boils down to the three things — individual, infrastructure, and implementation of public policy.

If the government bans plastic through public policy, then all businesses will be pushed into using biodegradables. Over time, the increase in the supply and demand chain will reduce the cost of processing it.

Businesses should be thinking of how to disrupt the current economy with the circular economy mindset; how to do business while thinking within this ecological ceiling. We already have local businesses like bulk food stores, repurposing of seat belts into handbags; doing it and it would be interesting to hear their stories.

My question to them is: how do they scale up? How can they influence others to jump on board with this mindset? Because that creates a larger impact.

We should start talking about carbon tax and even a green tax. If there were tax rebates incentives for corporations that do sustainable businesses, it would help the businesses grow.

We have 12 years to get this planet back. Anything else on the policy side before we move on?

The issue with policy is that it can’t just be top-down, it has to meet somewhere in the middle. Stakeholders must be included — especially people who are directly affected. For example, the straw ban discourse needs to include disabled communities or individuals with autism who need to use straws. It can’t be a complete ban, you must have a balance to make sure this policy works.

What are your thoughts on knowledge sharing using the digital platforms that we have?

I’m all for it, but I don’t think we need to shame people for using plastic. I’d rather encourage and empower, I dislike this shaming mentality.

You mentioned earlier that a layer of society is ready to change their mindset, and some are not.

My personal example is in the use of sanitary products. It was an eye-opener volunteering in Chow Kit. Here I am talking about menstrual cups and reusable pads. Then I see women not even having a house to clean themselves when they’re having their period. I have a house, a washing machine and access to water. Unfortunately, not all do.

This is where the industry can innovate. Are multinational corporations thinking about biodegradable plastics for disposable sanitary products? Innovation starts when there is a demand for solutions.

Companies have responded to the Islamisation in Malaysia. For example, washable pads are available because it’s cultural to wash them before disposal.

Yes, but why not go further and think about the environment? As Muslims we should also care about the environment and sustainability. I would love to hear a khutbah Jumaat talking about the environment, because that’s what being a Muslim is, leading this lifestyle of being responsible. When that happens, the industry will have to respond to an increase in demand.

Because the majority counts in markets, and the majority is halal?

Something could be halal beyond the literal sense. Why not extend the conversation to what is better for the planet? As a Muslim you want to live by the rules, but you can also look at it with more depth; being more responsible to the planet, and being mindful of everything that we use.

Going back to the business part, would you say that it’s still just a small cross-section of the private sector that is looking into the environment at the moment?

Yes definitely. At the end of the day the private and public sectors respond to what the public wants. The more education and shift in mindset we have, the more the economy would change.

I think it all goes back to the individual, how we as individuals just live more mindfully, and create that social change that impacts society and the environment.