I don’t really need a quick flick through the rolling news bulletins or my Twitter feed to remind me there are a lot of problems in the world. Conflict here, political repression there. Continuing poverty and economic hardship in poor countries, and the increasing gap between rich and poor. Environmental disasters around the globe, as ‘freak’ weather becomes the new norm in an age of climate change. Natural disasters, such as the recently reported loss of 400 million birds over the last 30 years.
We expect our governments to take action at home and abroad. Many people give to charities attempting to address these and other issues. But even committed donors and volunteers can feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity and scale of these problems. They don’t know where to focus. They can lose hope. Yet if there is one thing we need it is for people not to lose hope but to see how we can make progress, faster, and to join us in ever-larger numbers. In this article, I want to explore a reason to hope: the connectedness of things.
Years of campaigning on ‘human rights’, ‘development’ and the ‘environment’ gives me hope. It lies not in blind faith in God to save us from our folly (though I have a strong faith). Neither does it lie in the ultimate triumph of human good intentions: sorry, but I don’t believe there is any guarantee of that – I have read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse on the environmentally triggered ruin of several civilisations. My hope lies in the connectedness of things – healthy environment, stable economy, fair society, and respect for human rights. Growing public realisation of these inescapable bonds and solutions that work for all areas could accelerate comprehensive change.
Most people in the rich world don’t get these connections – yet. We have compartmentalised ‘sectors’ of life so rigidly. I’ve met people passionate about human rights who, while respecting my right to enjoy birdwatching, would think that saving our remaining UK birdlife is peripheral to the ‘real’ issue of safeguarding civil rights. I know people ardent about protecting Nature who would find my defence of civil and human rights uncomfortably ‘political’. I’ve had colleagues deeply committed to alleviating poverty abroad who believed that the ‘environment’ was a luxury Western obsession. These are all good people, but people who, like most of us in the Western world, have been culturally conditioned to compartmentalise rights, environment and economic development.
The artificiality of this separation has come home to me on many work trips abroad. In the 1990s I worked closely with an Indigenous people’s organisation in Honduras, Central America. Their communities lived off the plants of the forest and the abundant fish in the Patuca River. They were being threatened by the hired guns of the big ranchers and illegal logging companies, who were trying to intimidate them into abandoning their ancestral lands.
The communities knew that more logging and ranching would spell disaster for them, wrecking not just the forests but the river too – a living larder and transport route. Was the violent intimidation of this group of Hondurans a human rights problem, an economic development problem, or an environmental problem? It was all of those, and more. It was a threat to life in all its fullness; and they were defending their life – not just the right not to be murdered, but the physical environment that gave them food, shelter and spiritual sustenance.
In the UK, with our long history of democracy, rich-world status and tradition of wildlife conservation, we have long acted as if these features of life were independent of each other. Now, however, grave environmental and economic trends are increasingly exposing that connectedness again. It may still be below the radar of most people, but the bleeps will get louder and more visible for all.
One example is flooding. The UK had its wettest winter on record in 2013–14, with relentless rainfall, frequent storms, and monster waves. Most of the headlines were focused on low-lying Somerset, a swathe of which became an inland sea for weeks, but families had to abandon their homes in numerous parts of the country, from the coast of Wales in the west to Norfolk in the east.
The government initially blamed the Environment Agency (whose budget it had cut) for failing to prevent flood damage. But eventually the prime minister acknowledged that the bigger picture cause was… climate change. The Met Office confirmed it: this extreme weather – threatening lives, crops and infrastructure, and costing UK plc billions of pounds – was driven by a global environmental phenomenon caused by particular economic activity (basically, running our economies on fossil fuel). Five million households in the UK are already at risk of flooding, 370,000 of them at ‘significant’ risk. Climate change, according to the government, could increase the number at significant risk to 1 million by the 2020s.
Another exmple is air pollution. To those of us who remember our parents’ or grandparents’ tales of ‘pea-souper’ smog in London in the 1950s, or see the TV footage of China’s foul air pollution, the air in modern British cities looks clean. Yet it is killing many of us. At times, particulate air pollution, mostly from diesel road transport, makes simply stepping outside a hazard for many children and adults. Research suggests that there are 29,000 premature deaths each year in the UK from air pollution. Poisoning our environment is poisoning us.
Or take the consequences of the decline in our pollinators, such as bees. As Tony Juniper explains in greater detail elsewhere in this issue, University of Reading research has found that, were we to lose our pollinators and their free pollinating service, £1.8 billion a year would be added to the UK’s food bill, largely because of the increased costs of hand pollinating our fruit and veg varieties. Hand pollination is technically possible – they already do it in bee-bereft parts of China. But the rise in food prices it would cause in Britain would hit the poorest hardest and hit their right to a decent, healthy diet.
If the problems are connected, so too are the solutions. There is growing, demonstrable evidence of this if you know where to look – stories of a healthy environment helping us.
A healthy environment saves us money. Healthy peat bogs act as natural water purifiers, reducing the need for artificial filtration, and healthy forests act as natural rain retainers, slowing run-off and reducing flood risk – and the need for artificial and expensive flood defences – in valleys below. This is not lost on some companies: for example, Yorkshire Water has a major programme to reforest water catchments in the North of England and is working with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to restore peatlands. Still in the early stages of restoration, this community science project aims to combat climate change while simultaneously engaging local citizens in science and their community.
Contact with Nature is good for our health. Who has not experienced the calming effect of a few minutes in the garden after that stressful phone call, or a walk in the park at lunchtime? A 2007 RSPB report showed that contact with Nature had a positive effect on, among other things, anxiety and stress, elderly people and those with dementia, concentration in children and office workers, and reducing crime and aggression.
People often see the inter-connectedness of problems as impeding progress. We use words like ‘intractable’. But the interconnectedness of things can be an opportunity for faster progress. What would happen if we ‘environmentalists’ revealed and celebrated the positive connections whenever we got the chance? What would happen if we systematically reached out to other ‘sectors’ whose concerns are affected by the environment? What would happen if we sought out key opportunities to push together for specific change that would benefit all ‘sectors’ by reinforcing life in all its fullness? There are ample opportunities to do so.
Take fracking, for example. The UK government is bent on developing shale gas deposits in the UK, which requires hydraulic fracturing – ‘fracking’. Developing another source of fossil fuel when 80% of currently known fossil-fuel ‘assets’ must not be used if we are to avoid runaway climate change is madness. Public awareness of fracking and its dangers has gone from negligible to considerable in just a few years.
Friends of the Earth, with others, has succeeded in stopping the commercial development of shale gas in the UK for three years. We have transformed public awareness and prevented commercial development by showing how fracking would affect a community’s everyday concerns as well as contribute to climate change.
Fracking is likely to have significant local environmental impacts, however good the regulation. Legitimate concerns include deteriorating water quality, air pollution, despoliation of the landscape, increase in road traffic, and the need for long-term local jobs rather than the small number of itinerant ones that fracking offers.
Just as we have to stop the bad stuff, such as fracking and fossil fuels in general, we must roll out the good stuff – renewable energy and energy-efficiency measures. Here too there are ample opportunities for uniting sectors and concerns. Take the case of solar energy – the cost of which has plummeted by 80% in the last 5 years. Friends of the Earth would be quite justified in promoting solar energy simply on the basis of its benefits for the climate. However, that ignores the complexities of life that individuals and organisations have to manage, and the wider array of benefits solar offers.
Our latest campaign, ‘Schools Run on Sun’, aims to encourage the adoption of renewable energy at community level by helping a critical mass of schools to fit solar panels. Schools may care about climate change; they also have limited budgets and are concerned at spiralling energy bills. They are independent organisations, yet frequently they are central to the life of the local community. They want to contribute, not just to education, but also to improving the quality of the local community.
Thus we are encouraging schools to ‘Run on Sun’ – not just to cut carbon, but also to reduce their energy bills so that they will have more to spend on their students’ education, and to be beacons of clean energy in their local community.
If we can achieve faster progress by joining the dots, we should proactively look for opportunities to do so.
Environmentalists and ‘green’ organisations (there’s that stereotype again) should explore and extol the rights and economic benefits of doing the ‘right thing’ for Nature and the wider environment. We should also challenge other sectors to identify and shout about the genuine environmental benefits of progress in their areas. All sectors – environment, human rights, development, health, and so on – should challenge businesses at every opportunity in order to ensure that their products, production methods, prices and supply chains respect people’s rights, fair wages and the environment. And we should work much more closely on opportunities for change in each, from local to global levels.
Locally, in Britain, we need a much bolder movement of people fighting for true progress in their towns and cities, progress that will restore Nature and a healthy environment, reduce inequalities and provide durable livelihoods.
With elections coming up in the UK, we need supporters and activists in each sector to tell candidates about the importance of all these issues. You should not have to be party political to want to vote for life in all its fullness, for everyone.
A critical opportunity for progress will be the international UN climate change summit in Paris at the end of 2015. Its ability to agree a global deal to cut greenhouse gases steeply by 2030, in a way that is fairest to the poorest countries, as well as to agree assistance to help the poorest countries adapt to an inevitable degree of climate change, has monumental implications for the rights of people and the resilience of economies. At the same time, however, the UN climate negotiations make virtually no mention of Nature. Yet with climate change now posing a grave threat to the existence of many marine and terrestrial habitats and species, from coral reefs to polar bears, there is probably no more important ‘Nature’ summit on the horizon.
Joining the dots simply reflects the reality. It recognises and works with immutable physical and economic laws: that humans, and everything we make, do, sell, buy, breathe and eat, are a function of the natural environment and natural resources. The economy, politics, society all take place within the environment. Whether we are a member of a forest-dwelling tribe in Central America or a banker in the City of London, we are all ultimately dependent on the environment and the ‘services’ it provides. Orthodox economics is quiet about this; its voracious offspring, modern consumer society, is blind to it.
In any countries, those who point out the truth too loudly are increasingly subject to violence, to human rights abuse, for challenging a status quo that is ultimately unsustainable anyway. It is becoming so widespread a threat that Friends of the Earth International has a programme dedicated to protecting environmental defenders worldwide.
The answer to swifter progress on environment, global poverty and respect for human rights lies in recognising the opportunity of their connectedness. It lies in promoting solutions that recognise rather than deny this truth.
It lies in forming determined alliances with others who see this truth. A movement for life in all its fullness. In this, I have hope.