It’s all the rage now. Every news channel features it at least once a day; Twitter and Facebook feeds are awash with comments, and at social events it’s the perfect conversation killer: climate change. Our Environment Editor, Florence Hazrat, explains why she resists today’s hot topic.
If you live in London or in any big city around the world, there’s no way that you have not heard of it or been affected by it: road blockages by hundreds of people, who are singing, sitting and waving coloured flags which contain a zigzag symbol painted in black. A circle, and a stylized sand clock in the centre of it. The earth, and time running out. The sand clock, arms and legs crossing in its slender waist, forms an ‘x’, the name-giver for the global phenomenon that is Extinction Rebellion, a democratic people-to-people initative that campaigns for governmental actions to prevent climate change or, in any case, to soften the inevitable.
Barely a couple of months old and already inspiring world-wide action, Extinction Rebellion is a grass-roots, anarchically-organized initiative which has ordinary people come together and protest in front of government buildings and in public places. Actions include things that we have all done at some point in our lives, such as spraying slogans, and singing protest songs, but Extinction rebels go as far as using their bodies in remarkable and dangerous ways to make their point, ranging from sit-ins on Westminster Bridge to glueing their hands to doors of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. One aim is to get attention, and disrupt. We are familiar with this kind of strategy from Greenpeace. The other aim, one which we are less familiar, is to get yourself arrested. My liberty in exchange for environmental laws now. That’s the reasoning. Whether anybody, that is, the main target in the form of governments, cares or not begs the question.
To argue for or against the sense and sensibility to incur a mention in one’s criminal record would be to digress into questions of principle concerning citizen participation in modern politics. To wonder about the motivations and expectations of protesters is, perhaps, more worthwhile, and to try and assess them in the pursuit of the question of whether we should all become environment rebels and block streets. Just how far does people’s love of nature go? Where is the line between talk and substance, the shadow on the wall and the real object? Would you change your life for the sake of pidgeons, wasps, and hyenas?
Don’t get me wrong: of course I am an environmentalist. Of course, I want to save the planet. I think about ways to protect the earth and every tiny creepy-crawling sucker-of-an-insect every minute of the day, and don’t know anybody who gets more soft-hearted about a blade of grass than yours truly. Yet, I am not an environmentalist. Not according to their point of view, anyway.
I started beach cleaning, and realized: so much rubbish, and all of it avoidable.
It all started a couple of years ago, when I was neither particularly thoughtless about the environment, nor especially mindful, having enough to do just surviving my studies at St Andrews, in Scotland; that tiny far-flung place where the royal counterfeits of Kate and Wills smile at you from every cup and candle-holder. It was a rough January day, and I took a walk at the beach after a tremendous beginning-of-the-year storm had thrown on the shore a dizzying array of every thinkable and unthinkable object the sea could possibly hide in its wet belly. Strewn along the small strip of, perhaps, two and a half kilometers of sand was a volley ball, flip flops, masses and masses of nylon nets, a bikini, glass bottles, wrappings of food with Japanese writing, gigantic pieces of plastic whose use seemed unidentifiable, ropes, wood from boats, and so much more that made any messy person’s living room look like Marie Kondo had combed it through with a dose of joy. It was unbelievable just how much rubbish clogged the way. This was my revelation. I had to do something about all this waste.
I started beach cleaning, and realized it wasn’t actually those big alien things scattered around our natural places which pose the problem. It was cigarette butts, the sticks of lollypops, and plastic bottles. They were everywhere. I realized the strangeness of how we can enjoy beautiful scenery with an eye that obliviously swoops over those ugly little things when it lifts itself into the gorgeous North Atlantic horizon, but once you focus and actually look down, you realize. It is true. The devil is in the detail. So much detail, so much rubbish, and all of it avoidable.
I set out on a quest to become waste-free, and, after a year and a half of intensive research and experimentation (it’s hard to make ink yourself, and you had better learn to sew right now), I did it. I had one small-sized bag of non-recyclicable rubbish which wouldn’t fill up for months and months on end. I had reduced my reclyclicables of paper and glass to almost non-existence. Plastic recycling was not an option. The amount of energy used to do so was too high for me, and I did not want to be complicit in producing anything in the first place. I travelled anywhere by train (like, long distances, like, 17 hours distances across the Channel); I became vegan, ate mostly seasonal and locally-produced fruits and veg, and used banks and insurances that were ethical and sustainable – that is, not investing in things related to the coal industry, child-labour, deforestation and this kind of stuff. I plant trees when I do have to take a plane, use menstrual cups and self-made cloth-pads, buy anything I need second hand, from clothes to technology, and use other methods of birth control in order to avoid feeding not only myself hormones, but also those fish who live in rivers which receive cleaned sewage water, full of unfiltrable chemicals coming from things like the pill and drugs like ecstacy. (And yes, there are reliable natural birth control methods, but you have to be more engaged with your own body’s processes). That’s a brief over-view of the many small and big adjustments one can make to avoid having a harmful impact on the world. I guess one could call me pretty radical, although there’s always more to do. Environmentalism is long, and life is short.
Lots of things are, of course, enabled through the existence of possibilities in the first place. If there is no market near you, you have to buy in a shop which probably wraps produce in needless single-use plastic (how badly damaged can a cucumber get in transport that it becomes inedible, one wonders? And if it travels for miles and miles, needing protection, it’s probably less than fresh, and not a good idea to eat in the first place.). If there are no zero-waste shops which allow buyers to bring their own containers for oatmeal, flour, and lentils, they will have to shop in small silly packages from big monopolizing stores. Lots of things need to be enabled by organizations bigger than us. But it is also, and very much so, and mostly so, a choice. And here is where I disagree with Extinction Rebellion, and here is why I am not an environmentalist.
Are you willing to change your life in order to protect the environment?
I don’t demand government action. I do, but not only this. I demand action from every single one of us, me and you, and everyone. We are all swamping each other with re-tweets and re-posts of articles on the catastrophic effects of climate change. Most of them comfortably far away in Brazil or Iran, and all we have to grapple with at the moment is heat, rain, or snow that’s a little more intense than usual. We all know the photos of starving polar bears, seahorses with Q-tips wrapped around their tails, and turtle bellies full of plastic bags. David Attenborough appealing for change pops up on all our profiles. Everybody shares, and nobody does. Anything.
Would you actually be willing to change your life? Would you go vegan? Because the way beef is produced nowadays is both shameful in terms of animal welfare, and a contender for the world’s biggest polluter. And hey, vegetarians, the current life expectancy of an egg-laying chicken is one year, a sixth of its usual lifespan, and that’s for organic husbandry. Cows still need to be pregnant every 18 months in order to give milk, and if the calf is male, well…off with his head. So really, vegetarians are just as complicit in both animal slaughter and pollution as meat-eaters. Let’s not be hypocritical about the bloody realities of animals as source for food and goods.
We need to become aware of just how great our strength is to direct future interests, and to punish what is destructive by withdrawing our money from it.
Environmental change great and small: would you use washable cloth toilet paper to save trees, plastic use, and fuel for transportation? Because the global amount of a staggering 27,000 trees a day is being used for bum-wipers. Did you check where the coal for your latest summer BBQ is coming from? More likely than not, it’ll be the Amazon rainforest. Do you make sure that the cheap notepad you bought from the corner shop has a mark for certified paper? If not, will you make a choice and not buy it? And will you? Will Extinction rebels who are good at shouting loudly for change, but not when it comes to maintaing it at home? They drive cars, use phones, computers, wear leather shoes: all such things and activities that contribute to damaging and laying waste to the environment. I joined my local Extinction Rebellion group while it was still fresh and innocent; but when I suggested to make flags with the symbol from old clothes, I was ignored. So I left the group. Where does the cheap cloth for environmental rebels come from? South East Asian firms, polluting rivers with their sewage water, and exploiting local populations. Of course, unfortunately, we all need to pollute sometimes in order to get the message across. I’m writing this on a dirty old computer, after all, and have enjoyed an education at a university that, until very recently, did not even want to discuss divesting from fossil fuels. But there are some who show how to be both consistent and true to the cause, and also demanding of governmental action. And that is Greta Thunberg. As far as I am aware, she, too, takes horrendous train journeys from Stockholm to the rest of the world in order to avoid flying. Here is someone with credible integrity. It is simply hypocritical to protest and then keep consuming as thoughtlessly and selfishly as we do.
Government action is all very well, and it is necessary, and it is effective – but, in theory, the government does what people tell it to do by putting pressure on it through elections and complaints via (social) media. Business does what people want it to do by us placing our consumer power very carefully. We need to become aware of just how great our strength is to direct future interests, and to punish what is destructive by withdrawing our money from it. Yes, that does mean personal constraint. It does mean not hopping on a plane because it’s cheap, and going on a week-end trip to Rome. Just because we can, does not mean we should (The New York Times has written amply on the heavy environmental cost of air traffic). We just have to accept we cannot have our banana cake, and eat it, too. Monoculture like banana farming has destroyed traditional mixed growth homesteads in, for example, former colonies like Ghana or Kenya. Transport costs are enormous in terms of diesel, polluting the seas. And has anyone ever thought one moment where this fuel is coming from? Can we protest against the war in Iraq, blatantly waged for reasons of American influence and the world’s thirst for oil, and yet have our coconut milk shake? I don’t think so. Nothing comes from nothing, and so, an exotic fruit needs to travel somehow, using some kind of fuel which comes from somewhere. Is it more important to me to eat mangoes or to know I did not participate in international conflict and the destruction of nature for some passing frivolous whim? And if you think this is taking it too far, no it’s not. This is the reality, and it hurts to realize one’s own involvement and responsibility. But that realization is also the greatest gift, because it makes us free. It makes us free to rise to the agency we possess. It makes us know we have a choice and we have influence. And an enormous one at that.
We have a choice. We have agency. We just need to realize our incredible consumer power.
We have the choice to opt for clean energy, and not nuclear or coal, that biggest of polluters. We have a choice to eat less meat, and if we must, then pick good meat coming from animals who are able to enjoy the most comfortable and natural conditions possible. There are alternatives for almost anything you can think of, but you must want it. Want and thou shalt find. There’s plenty of advice out there for reducing one’s impact on the environment, just search for ‘zero waste life’. Blogs in the thousands. And of course, you might want to search not via Google, but Ecosia, the alternative search engine that uses 80% of its advertisement income to plant trees. It’s all in the detail. We need to think every step through, even (especially), our digital footprints.
There can be wealth and security without the higher, faster, better mentality currently dominating our lives.
We also need to stop perpetuating mass consumption and throw-away culture. Some say people in poor countries rely on the cheap labour which factories offer because we create the demand, and if we stopped buying cheap stuff, they’d be out of work. But without us, and without greedy tycoons owning those factories, people wouldn’t have to make the journey to city slums in the first place. By at least choosing companies with ethical codes and the protection of workers’ rights, we can effect change for the better. That also means paying that little bit more, and re-adjusting value for something valuable that has suffered from price dumping in a world that craves more for less.
Another fundamental re-think needs to occur in economic models. It is clear that we are in the situation we are in because of the extreme greed of a handful of people around the world, who keep feeding us the same stories, that capitalism is the only solution to the development of countries, to peace and prosperity. This is simply not true. Capitalism always works on exploitation of both people and the environment, and there can be wealth and security without the higher, faster, better mentality currently dominating our lives.
Growth-based economies are not natural givens. They are just one way of organizing the world, and they’ve shown that it’s a pretty bad way. What about producing enough? Enough to be safe, but not to exploit? The good earth (and I’m using that expression fully conscious of its clichéd ring) is abundant, and has enough for everyone. We just need to re-distribute, and be fair and respectful with one another, and with our ressources. We need economies based on de-growth, a model perfectly capable of providing jobs and opportunities.
It is obvious we need commitments to cutting pollution from above. But it is also obvious, and more so, that we need to realize just how powerful we are in our individual actions. Where we place our penny, that is where the future goes.
When there is a shift in attitude, and a fundamental re-thinking of every individual’s implications in the big clockwork that is life, when we think all our actions through to the end, making sure we have covered our steps ethically and sustainably, when we relinquish our superfluous neediness for a true love and passion to protect nature, then, and only then will I call myself an environmentalist. And proudly so.
Six ways to improve your environmental footprint right now.
- Avoid plastic. Deliberately choose plastic-free options at super markets. Even better: find your local open-air market and buy seasonal local unwrapped food. That way, you also support local farmers and sellers.
- Say no to unnecessary wrapping. Say no to bags, plastic or paper. Always have a re-usable bag with you. When folded they are not bigger than a five pound note. Also say no to plastic straws or unnecessary napkins when you order.
- Check out your local zero-waste store via bepakt.com. They’ll offer basically everything for daily life unwrapped, including soap, shampoo, detergent, tea, chocolate, rice, flour, toothpaste and so on.
- Get a collapsible silicon cup for your future take-away coffee.
- Check out ethical insurances and banks like Triodos. All your usual banking service, but investment is ethical and sustainable (e.g. does not include arms deals or fossil fuel).
- Try going vegetarian or vegan for a month. Get together with friends and create challenges, so it becomes fun and friendly.