GUEST BLOG: Turning public concern about the environment into engagement and action!
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be able to walk nearly 200 miles meandering between England and Wales following the Offa’s Dyke Path. Thanks to King Offa’s instructions to position his Dyke on the highest and steepest land available, as well as tired legs, we experienced the full impact of (potentially climate change induced!) British summer weather - from the heatwave to torrential downpours - and views ranging from breathtaking to ‘can’t see my hand in front of my face’.
Apart from realising that life spent living in London has not equipped my body for 14 consecutive days of pain free walking, I was also struck by how ‘human free’ our countryside can be, even in the middle of the summer, and yet how evident human impact is everywhere you look.
All along the route, previous generations - from Bronze Age Britons to Romans, King Offa and the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans - left behind spectacular evidence of the way they altered the landscape. But they lived and worked on the land they were shaping and were much more aware of their dependence on the natural environment. Today we are ultimately no less dependent on this landscape for our lives and well-being yet many of us have become distant and disconnected from it and crucially the understanding of the very significant impact that our modern living has on it - whether we’re at home, at work or at play!
We’ve seen several peaks of concern for the environment over the last 40 years but have we now reached a tipping point? A recent MORI Survey suggests 85% of British people are now worried about climate change, with 52% very concerned. Our media, traditional and social, is now constantly buzzing with discussions on everything from plastics and recycling, to less polluting transport options or the benefits of more vegetarian diets for us and the planet. We have real leadership being shown by individuals ...from the ‘evergreen’ Sir David Attenborough’s global leadership of the natural world to Greta Thunberg mobilizing young people to demand action on climate change from adults who should know better! And in the last few days we have seen the fires that are tragically burning in the Amazon dominate political discussions at the G7 Summit.
Partly as a consequence of all this, pretty much every self-respecting business is now looking to at least manage its environmental impact responsibly, if not looking for ways to create new business opportunities by developing more environmentally friendly products and services.
So how do we ‘lock in’ this new level of environmental concern to stop us slipping back into another period of environmental apathy? It’s clear from the last 40 years that solutions to environmental problems are rarely simple, particularly where they involve and impact on people and their lives, which they nearly always do. Whilst science and technology have a major role in helping us to better understand, protect and improve the environment, to be successful we must also:
1. Be mindful of the unintended consequences of the actions we take – whether introducing more renewable forms of energy, changing methods of food production, switching to different packaging materials or changing our eating habits there will be consequences - good and sometimes bad. We need good science-based research and evidence to help us make the right decisions.
2. Identify the issues and actions (and not always the most obvious) that will have the biggest positive impact for the planet and people – the sheer number of ever-increasing environmental initiatives that the general public, potential funders and investors are bombarded with can be confusing. We need organisations to work together to deliver tangible impacts at scale and speed, not least to convince people that we can make real progress on environmental issues.
3. Involve people in understanding the issues and developing solutions otherwise they won’t be engaged, motivated and willing to make the required changes in their own lives – we need much better communication of the scientific research and technology solutions we need to adopt. However, we also need real engagement and involvement of people of all ages, helping them connect with and understand the impacts of their personal decisions on the environment and how they can make a difference. This last point is the main reason I became a Trustee of the Charity Earthwatch, which has as its mission ‘ to engage people in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment’..
King Offa, with only the limited means available to him 1,300 years ago, left his mark on our countryside. With the technology now available to us giving us an almost unlimited ability to shape the landscape, what will our generation’s lasting impact on our countryside and nature be?