by Pamela Collins, doctoral student in palaeobiogeography at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland.
I just spent the day in a large and ultra-modern conference center in London, England, listening to an impressive array of very important people discussing all the major environmental issues of the planet. Almost everyone had a laptop computer and/or a smartphone. Everyone was well-educated and well-dressed. Many had flown from far-away countries to be there. Talking. Networking. Sharing their ideas and their experiences and their excitement over vegetarian lunches and fair-trade coffee. The air was charged with enthusiasm for the conference mission: finding (and implementing!) sustainability solutions for a planet under pressure.
Afterwards, I went to my hotel, exchanged my laptop for my running shoes, and entered another world. A world sandwiched between the towering walls and smokestacks of a not-so-modern sugar factory, a major international airport, and old dockyards along a dirty river. Here, the air was loaded with the rumble of trains, planes, automobiles, and machinery, but also with the sounds of seagulls, songbirds, and playing children. I passed churches, schools, community centers, small businesses, and apartment buildings of every shape, size, and vintage. The streets were filled with people walking home from work, chatting with friends, or playing soccer (ok, ok, football). The whole neighborhood was riddled with sidewalks and patches of green space. I didn’t see any laptop computers, and I rather doubt the topic of most conversations was related to climate change or sustainability. Yet, this neighborhood struck me as a decent example of sustainable urban development: people worked and played where they lived, and the sense of community was evident, despite the less than glamorous surroundings.
Inside our conference bubble, we know that global environmental troubles are already happening and that the horizon looks grim. In here, we’re keen on taking action now to keep the planet’s natural ecosystems functioning and to safeguard our children’s future. But outside this bubble, what are people most thinking about? Do they worry about the dizzying array of different environmental problems they hear about in the news? Or do they prefer to focus on things that they feel they can actually control, like doing their jobs well or taking care of their homes or raising their families? What concrete tools or messages can we deliver them that will help them to make sustainable decisions on a daily basis? How can we convey the message that every individual decision matters? And, do we actually know what sustainable behaviors they’ve already adopted?
And even within our bubble, how aware are we, really, of our own impact on the issues we’re discussing? Do we know where and how the meat and plant materials from last night’s dinner were produced? Do we know where all the materials inside our laptops and smartphones and running shoes came from? Do we know anything about the environmental costs associated with extracting the raw materials for these products or assembling them into the commodities we use on a daily basis? Do we feel like we have any power or influence about how those production decisions are made? Do we care?
Is there such a big difference between the worlds inside and outside the conference bubble?
A lively topic of discussion at this conference has been the imperative need for effective communication on environmental issues between the scientific community and the voting purchasing public. However, we must go further than that. Not only must we empower and inform those who have not chosen science as a profession, but we must also look into the mirror and examine our own choices.
Every individual citizen of the western world sits in a position of power, and most of us are not even aware of it. With every single purchase we make, we tell the global economy what we want it to produce, in what quantity, and how much we’re willing to pay for it. The businesses that extract and process the natural resources we consume on a daily basis need a reason to adopt more sustainable practices. Regulations and internalization of externalities are a good start, but without our consistent demand for sustainable products and our support of the businesses that provide them, they will not be able to change their practices because they must compete to survive.
In addition to supporting sustainable business practices, there is no alternative to rethinking our entire consumer culture. Resource extraction, by definition, disrupts the healthy functioning of the ecosystems where it occurs. The same is true for waste disposal. All matter in the universe is limited, and every atom that is used for one purpose cannot be simultaneously used for another. The natural resources we consume in the developed world are thus not available for use by our brothers and sisters in the developing world. We deprive the natural ecosystems around us of their rights to land and to clean air and water with every resource extraction project we develop.
It’s really quite simple, in the end. The less we consume, the more is available for the rest of our human family, and for the incomprehensibly complex and beautiful natural world that surrounds and sustains us. How did we forget that most basic lesson of childhood – to share?
Pamela Collins was a panelist on Day 2 in the plenary discussion: Innovative solutions for a planet under pressure on Tuesday, 27 March, Day 2. She also created the Planet Under Pressure Youth and Young Scientist Forum. Pamela joined our conference from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland as a doctoral student in palaeobiogeography.