Think ‘environmental issues’, and your mind is probably drawn to the same banal imagery that mine is. Perhaps you think of an ice cap, or a windmill, or maybe even a sad-looking tiger from a daytime TV appeal, hunted to extinction and longing for your £2 a month. The more astute reader might think of the rising seas levels or crude oil being pumped out of the ground. The list goes on in a similar style; a stream of mental associations seemingly pooled from the National Geographic, EDF energy adverts and the default PC screensaver.
The problem with such depictions of our environmental predicament is not only that they are unrepresentative of the extent and severity of the problem, but, worse still, that they fail to arouse the necessary uproar – and prompt the corresponding activity – which the issue should be receiving. Compared to the disgust elicited by the recent crisis in Gaza, or our moral revulsions at the likes of racism or sexism, the thought of a few less penguins sounds like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
In this way, the environment continues to lose out from the attention it deserves; It is consistently omitted from pre-election political debate and side-lined as an issue which occasionally crops up in between Middle Eastern crises, usually for want of a better story.
In spite of this, commentators and environmental campaigners continue to issue the same old warnings, whether they be that climate change is reducing the number of polar bears or that an area of land ‘the size of X football fields’ has been deforested this month in the Amazon rainforest. This is an outdated and failing rhetoric in a world where, judging by our actions, the majority of us don’t care about the natural world – or at least the pretty bits tucked away in remote places which few of us will ever see.
Rampant consumerism continues unabated. Our politicians fail to take the necessary decisive action on implementing sustainable technologies. Our dependence on fossil fuels continues. If anything, such campaigning may even have a numbing effect, leading us into thinking that the environment is less of an issue for humans than it really is – that somehow we are exempt from the consequences of our own neglect, stupidity and greed.
The reality, on the other hand, is that man-made climate change can and will kill more people than any single war or genocide has so far managed to. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, comprising of the governments of 20 countries, is just one of a number of groups that has made predictions as to the likely death toll incurred by our environmental actions.
Their 2012 report argues that by 2030, climate change will have killed 100 million people, most of whom will be residing in the developing world. Amongst the factors causing these deaths will be water shortages, famine, increased spread of infectious diseases and economic collapse. Another report predicts the effects of a 4°C increase in average global temperature– something conceivable by 2100 should we remain inactive for much longer – and makes the former report sound like a Disneyland brochure.
The environmental lobby needs to become bolder and more aggressive in its demands, thereby matching the severity of the situation appropriately. It needs to be more vocal in communicating the fact that humans are much more intimately intertwined with their environment than we currently think we are.
It must reinvent itself as a humanitarian cause, making its campaign more pertinent to our own lives, dropping the tepid rainforest threats that fail to gauge human psychology. It must improve the transparency between our actions today, and the repercussions they are having and will have on millions of people’s lives tomorrow.
I believe a large part of our apparent indifference to the environment is to do with the many other issues that we perceive as more pressing, such as successive Middle East crises, which in turn gain more of our politicians’ attention. Drop the polar bear, the penguin, and the black rhino as mascots for environmental campaigning – replace it with the human being – and I truly believe environmentalism could start having the impact it has so far failed to have.
Of course this is not to suggest for a second that the rest of the environment does not matter as much as us; but, if we want to change our approach to the environment in a way that is beneficial for the entire planet, we have to engage the perpetrators in a way which panders to their interests – namely, themselves.