- Some Islands Will RiseSingapore in the Anthropocene
Reading Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here in a course on environmental literature at Yale-NUS College, my students and I couldn’t help wonder: what will the future hold for Singapore? Here shows the view from a fixed perspective and location (Perth Amboy, New Jersey) across eons, ranging from 3,000,500,000 BCE to 22,175 AD. In 2111, water pours through the window of a suburban house, and fifteen years later the area is entirely submerged (McGuire 2014). These scenes in particular inspired the class to reflect on the future of Singapore, the sole industrialized small island nation in the world. While most narratives of climate futures focus on the great destabilizations, violence, and suffering we can expect in the next century, with seemingly doomed island nations (such as Tuvalu and the Maldives) serving as symbols of an incipient era of unconscionable environmental injustice, at least one island will rise. If drowned cities are one likely future, island fortresses are another. As a wealthy nation with a tradition of environmental engineering, a strong centralized government, and the technological capacity to adapt, Singapore’s artificial technonature might provide a glimpse of the future for those lucky enough to survive the rising tides. This essay considers the possibility that Singapore is a model, as many scholars (e.g., Chua B. 2011) have claimed, but for very different and potentially conflicting practices: climate adaptation, sustainable urbanism, national greenwashing, and eco-authoritarianism.
The most appropriate place to begin such an examination is the cool, dark, metallic cavern at the base of the Cloud Forest dome in Singapore’s billion-dollar supergarden complex, Gardens by the Bay. After [End Page 166] visitors wind their way down the dome, a massive air-conditioned glass structure that showcases the transplanted flora of mountain forest ecosystems, they encounter a theater in which the short film +5 plays on loop. With a quickening crescendo, it depicts mounting scenes of climate catastrophe as the planet warms to five degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In 2063 (+2.9 degrees) a child’s voice announces that half of all species are condemned to extinction. In 2080 (+4.3 degrees) there is a 50 percent decline in freshwater availability. By 2100 (+5.0 degrees), a male voice concludes, the Earth is just “a dry rock dying in space.” But all is not lost. As the timeline rapidly reverses, the disembodied narrator counsels that “this is only one possible future.” If “we act quickly,” we “can adapt our behavior and prevent all this from happening.” Such adaptations would include “technology” (a photograph of a solar array), “farm practices” (a vertical farm), and “policies” (wind turbines). A piano plays the last notes of a hopeful coda while a final image appears: an architect’s rendering of a night scene at Gardens by the Bay, with families strolling below Singapore’s iconic “Supertrees.” Through this illustration, the film offers Singapore’s technonature as a response to and salvation from its own dystopian forecasts.
As the audience exits, eighteen Supertrees loom before them, each between 80 and 160 feet tall. By any technical definition they are hardly “trees” but funnel-shaped concrete pillars with over 160,000 tropical plants sown into their exteriors and metallic purple extensions as their clipped crowns. Every evening, they perform a light show in time with inspirational symphonic music, the center stage of a municipal performance hall whose balcony seats are located in the surrounding skyscrapers. Bright lights illuminate the epiphytes in their trunks, and multicolored bulbs blink on and off, approximating the stars. In their artificiality, their reaching verticality, and their futuristic aspiration, the “sci fibotany” (Lim 2014, 443) of the Supertrees is distinctly Singaporean.1 It asserts that “nature,” once contained and engineered, is but a medium for human artifice and amelioration. Beyond their function as scaffolding for a symphony of lights, the Supertrees are a kind of monumental ecological edutainment. As diagrams throughout the gardens explain to visitors, they are vents for the air-conditioned Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, two of the largest enclosed glass structures in the world, and also contain...