A device that looked like a digital clock was seen counting down second by second as time passed by. This clock mirrored the "climate clock" in the New York city center. The time displayed on the clock was 5 years and 350 days, the deadline to prevent the earth from warming beyond the temperature of 1.5°C.
A 1.5°C global temperature increase is equivalent to about 6°C increase at the two poles. This can be fatally disastrous for species like plankton, and one which has a domino effect on the food supply chain. As with the "butterfly effect", a minor air disturbance is enough to cause a storm from far away.
What will be the impact of a 1.5°C increase on the island nation of Singapore? In the interactive exhibition area of the Glow On Gallery, visitors can vote for the consequences they are most concerned about — extreme weather, heavy flooding in the neighbourhood, food shortages, outbreaks of infectious diseases, or loss of biodiversity. Whichever one chooses, it's an existential challenge we will face unless we are willing to put in our effort to make a difference.
An NGO’s experience in implementing sustainable practices in its daily operations
The Glow On Gallery is a permanent exhibition gallery covering an area of 336m2. The exhibition content is based on a sustainable development framework, sharing how Tzu Chi, a non-governmental organization, implements sustainability in daily life.
Defined by the United Nations, sustainable development is one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Consequently, the exhibition can be explored in two segments – "Personal Action" and "Collective Impact" - to explore how we can implement environmental sustainability at home and how we as a community can collectively implement sustainability in the environmental, social, and economic aspects.
What is the kind of "sustainable lifestyle" that you and I can opt for? In a nutshell, it is to implement the 5Rs of waste management (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and Recycle) anytime and anywhere. Volunteering in community services is also part of a sustainable life.
Sustainability at the birthplace of Tzu Chi
The concept of sustainable development may seem profound and novel. But in the 1960s, the founder of Tzu Chi, Master Cheng Yen, had already started incorporating environmental, social, and economic sustainability into Tzu Chi when she established Jing Si Hall in Hualien, Taiwan.
Today, in this monastic group with more than 200 bhikkhunis, everyone maximises the use of everything possible to practise a "zero waste" lifestyle. In major international disaster relief operations, Jing Si Hall serves as the logistics and support centre for frontline personnel, which is a force for social sustainability.
Jing Si Hall follows the rule of Zen Master Baizhang, "A day with no work is a day with no food". Since its founding, the nuns have been involved personally in agricultural work and handicrafts making. They "earn a living" by selling natural food, daily necessities, and publications through Jing Si Bookstores worldwide, thereby implementing economic sustainability.
Master Cheng Yen utilised the Jing Si Hall as a base to carry out charity, medical care, education, and humanistic cultural work. The charitable missions were subsequently expanded to benefit people around the world. It mobilized the locals to "help thy neighbours, help thy kin" and benefit locals with the resources obtained locally. The principles that Tzu Chi has followed for half a century can echo the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
The rise of environmental awareness
The concept of sustainable development began to spread in the early 1990s, especially after the United Nations held the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. At that time, 155 countries joined an international treaty to combat climate change and regularly hold the now-familiar "Conferences of the Parties (COP)" to review the global progress in addressing climate change.
That year, the Singapore government launched the Singapore Green Plan (SGP), which became the basis for Singapore's green blueprints for 2012 and 2030.
Two years before the Earth Summit, Master Cheng Yen, in a lecture on environmental protection, encouraged the public to use their "applauding hands" to do environmental protection. She hoped that the audience, who warmly applauded and agreed with the concept of environmental protection, could jump into action immediately. At that time, a girl started to do recycling after returning home, and this motivated more and more Tzu Chi volunteers to join in.
Tzu Chi Singapore kept up with the movement and established an environmental protection team in 1994. Several volunteers offered their trucks and borrowed the premises of Pao Kwan Foh Tang temple and volunteers' homes to start sorting and recycling. After more than 20 years of hard work, the environmental protection movement has been transformed from a low-profile and quiet activity to one that can be loudly and proudly publicised and promoted.
It takes collective actions apart from common understanding and consensus to bring about changes
In 2015, Tzu Chi Foundation Taiwan was invited to attend the COP21 summit in Paris. Master Cheng Yen found that although governments from different countries were aware of the severity of the climate crisis, they had been unable to reach a consensus on concrete actions for a prolonged period due to their country’s interests. For this reason, Master Cheng Yen advocated the need for everyone to have a common understanding, consensus, and collective action.
The Singaporean government also understands the importance of collective action, which is why the Singapore Green Plan 2030 proposes a 3P (Public-Private-People) collaborative framework of government agencies, private enterprises, and civil society organizations.
As a local community organization, Tzu Chi has been working with various partners in recent years, not only to promote environmental education but also to provide multiple charitable and medical services in response to the needs in a timely manner, focusing on disadvantaged groups such as students from low-income families, AIDS patients, renal patients, and long-term bedridden residents in various institutions.
Every good deed of Tzu Chi stems from a kind thought. Just as a firefly lights up its surroundings, it inspires more like-minded fireflies to shine together, illuminating the night and bringing hope.
It is hard to imagine how our seemingly minute individual strengths could achieve such ambitious international visions as the Sustainable Development Goals. But perhaps it is helpful to think in the opposite direction: How can our individual strengths have a vast and far-reaching impact?
Do not neglect the power of personal actions
At the gallery's entrance is an earth model made of roughly 1,800 recycled PET bottles. Surrounding the model is a track running from high to low. When visitors throw a small ball onto the track, it triggers a light sensor, and the earth gradually brightens; at the same time, the ball also triggers a wind chime.
Through a multi-sensory experience of sight, sound, and touch, the curatorial team hopes that visitors will not lose sight of their power and believe that they can also shine and impact the earth positively.
Tzu Chi volunteers believe that as long as they are willing to give love, there is no significant difference between the giver and the recipient. When receiving help, the recipient can do good together, even by donating just fifty cents or one dollar. "I also have the ability to help others" is another form of empowerment, allowing the recipient to believe in himself and inspiring him to change the world.
Over the past three decades, Tzu Chi has incorporated the practice of empowering recipients in its local charity work for the needy, continuously initiating the cycle of kindness in society. This conceptual and practical innovation is one of the case studies shared in the exhibition zone named "Shining in Our Neighbourhood".
Promoting sustainability awareness in the community
The NEWater treatment plants, Marina Barrage, Semakau Landfill, and many more are the proud achievements of the government in building a sustainable Singapore. The fruits of the government's vision are displayed in the exhibition halls attached to these facilities. However, there is still a lack of galleries that reflect how civil society organisations are promoting sustainable development.
In addition, if we look at Singapore's recycling rate, the government has maintained an overall recycling rate of 52% to 61% over the past five years through effective law enforcement and centralised collection channels and facilities management, making it a model for Southeast Asian countries. However, if we look at the household recycling rate, which ranges from 12% to 22%, it shows that the general public's awareness of environmental protection still needs to be heightened.
Therefore, Tzu Chi has positioned the new gallery as a place to share with the public sustainable choices that can be integrated into their daily lives, hoping to extract Tzu Chi's 57 years of global charity experience and 30 years of local volunteer experience as well as the sharing of real-life stories and cases of humanitarian aid, to make more people aware of the importance of social sustainability and economic sustainability.
Start taking personal actions to bring positive changes to the world
The gallery is not air-conditioned so that visitors can feel the present temperature of the earth through natural ventilation. The curatorial team recycles and utilises second-hand items to promote the concept of sustainability. The curatorial process saves 670 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the amount absorbed by 30 large trees in a year.
Not far from the gallery is the Nee Soon Swamp Forest, which is surrounded by a highly urbanised community. The area that spans only five square kilometres is home to a unique new firefly species named Luciola singapura, which is less than five millimetres long.
Fireflies are ecological indicator organisms that are sensitive to light pollution and water quality. This is a reminder to us that such life vitality can be lost if we don't act proactively.
At the same time, the flickering glow of a group of fireflies on a cold night shows that we can build a sustainable future if we can collaborate and work as a team.