Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Why bother with green? - A young person’s perspective

I confess: I’m at best cynical, at worst apathetic when it comes to green issues. This might not be the expected position of a geography student, less one who is supposed to be a green officer in the Geography Society. My teenage years came at the height of the green craze; the ink was still drying on the Kyoto agreements, “global warming” was always a valid answer, and the cool kids pored over atlases to work out which major cities would end up underwater. My teaching was saturated with green issues, especially global warming. I was disappointed to learn that drawing diagrams of the greenhouse effect is not a recognised skill on LinkedIn, as this renders useless ten years of sitting through geography and double science.

But after years of indoctrination, I still don’t feel particularly engaged and energised by these problems, important though they are. Why? To make this article work, we’ll have to both assume that I convey the true feelings of my age group, and ignore the point that my disengagement is merely the natural apathy of the privileged polluter – this is itself a symptom of other problems. With that out the way, I’ll get on with my excuses.

Firstly, the hype surrounding “greenness”, the shorthand for environmental responsibility and awareness, has died down. The media machine has ground onwards to other topics, and now we discuss the economy rather than the environment. Why, as a student, do I care about the long-term environment when they’re raising my tuition fees and I’ll need a job? This is in response to, and supports, a changed political agenda and public discourse. Both have lurched from environmental crisis to security crisis to financial crisis.  I’ll try to resist being a typical student and referring to “a book that I read at uni”, but in each case the discourse of crisis has enabled governments to pass drastic legislation, and has normalised a state of crisis in the public imagination.

Secondly, the flaws in the entire project of limiting environmental degradation have become increasingly apparent. Carbon trading lets major polluters continue polluting, while geopolitical manoeuvring (the US at Kyoto, China at Copenhagen) makes global agreement on global issues seem impossible. I feel unable to influence policy at any scale, yet my personal contributions seem so small as to be meaningless. Who cares if I recycle that pizza box? The Chinese just opened another coal-fired power station!

The total effect is that green issues become less relevant, fading into the hum of the newsroom or buried in the cabinets of Whitehall. Despite more and more evidence of climate change (not the only, but the most dramatic, green issue), fatalism, cynicism and short-term outlooks prevail. Immediately, financial viability (read: cost-cutting) and marketisation are more relevant than sustainability. There is no easy cure. There needs to be a mature restatement of the absolute and crucial relevance of our environment, and the fact of our relationship with it. But even if this is already on-going, mature statements do not get attention – increasingly, larger debates about the environment take place only after crises. Public and politicians addressed nuclear fuel after Fukushima, industrial pollution and regulation after the Deepwater Horizon, climate change after Hurricane Katrina.
Meanwhile I, young person, am disengaged from the political power needed to make substantial changes, see green issues become irrelevant and ignored, and I am distracted by problems which are closer to home and easier to grasp. And, (to predict another crisis) it is my cynicism that could be the killing blow for attempts to sustain environmental debate and protection in the years to come.

World Environment Day, and what followed!

World Environment Day (WED) passed a few days ago, on the 5th of June; did you notice? Not even the often-meaningful Google icon for that day recognised this global event; instead we were reminded of the 295th birthday of the (undoubtedly highly skillful) furniture maker, Thomas Chippendale.

Nevertheless, things did happen. A glance at the WED website shows that events took place as far afield as Mongolia (the ‘host’ country celebrating its first wind farm) and Somalia (one of the world’s poorest countries). The slogan for the awareness-raising campaign this year, organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was: THINK-EAT-SAVE; REDUCING YOUR FOOTPRINT; this made reference to the fact that a third of the world’s food production, 1.3 billion tons, is wasted and thrown away each year. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions when you consider that 1 in 7 of us go hungry.
The spotlight was on the unnecessary pressure this creates on the areas of land under cultivation and the demand on fresh water supplies. Did you know that it takes 1,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk? I didn't.

How effective campaigns like this are is hard to say. I suspect that it is their cumulative effect that has an impact, not just one event. This shows in so many different ways. In Singapore, where regular readers will know I spend part of my year, they have been celebrating 25 years of ‘going green’. In particular, the growing of trees and opening of public spaces is important in an island crammed with people and a growing industry. The aim is for 85% of the population to be less than 400 metres from a public park by 2030. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding prime minister, has planted a tree symbolically every year since 1963 and did so again this year.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, has also launched an initiative this month to implement a seamless transition from the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015 to new Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030. These goals will be partly informed by a recently published Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) agenda which aims to tackle poverty alongside promoting environmental protection.

There is environmental action taking place everywhere, both co-ordinated toward a common global goal and informal or commercially driven. For example, I happened upon an interview yesterday featuring the Head of Sustainability of Procter and Gamble. Therein he explained how the improving technologies in cleaning products, allowing for 30 degrees Celsius washes and using less packaging, lessened resource usage for families and the environment. This is one of countless steps improving the situation; check company sustainability reports if you are interested.

But then the real world bites back. Despite all the good news, who would have thought that just a few days later in Singapore we would be heading for the greatest environmental crisis the city-state has faced so far? I usually submit this blog from under a palm tree in the sun. I am now sitting inside my hotel room with no sun visible because I am advised it is unsafe to go outdoors. The smog is so dense that I can barely see across the road. It is like a vision of the apocalypse. Unless you can remember the London smog of the 1930s and 1950s, you would have to see pictures on the news or web to believe it.

Most people in the street (and some inside) are now wearing masks if they can get one; I have failed so far, as the shops here are sold out! There is a possibility that all outside workers will be told to stay at home. The psi index of pollution is currently 400, near the highest point ever reached. To give you some perspective, anything above 300 is considered hazardous!

The choking haze comes from the very problem WED was trying to highlight. Clearing forest areas on the Indonesian island of Sumatra for agricultural plantations and grazing. Both large corporations and small holders start fires in the dry season and let them run riot across the indigenous forest only a few miles away across The Straits. There has been no rain for days. The authorities are considering cloud seeding but the problem could last for weeks.

This is having a real economic impact. Tourists are staying away, businesses cannot function properly, people are falling ill and hospitals are filling. It is expected to cost the economy millions, not to mention the cost in terms of health provision and the impact on individuals' health. Long-term, it will have an effect on business reputation, as well as place a strain on diplomatic relations between Indonesia and its neighbours.
This is a huge and harsh reminder of the reality of sustainability. It is far more pressing on the imagination and conscience than any number of special events and global agreements. One aspect of food pressure and deforestation is being brought sharply into focus in a developed economic hub: No one is immune; we are all on the same planet.

Is this a view of things to come? If so, I suggest we work together to do all we can.

David Jackman


Undeniably sustainability is a word used to mean long lasting. However, it dawns on me that at the age of 17, long lasting reaches as far as applying for a job. Sustainability is a choice more than a necessity; one doesn’t have to think long-term because, simply, there is no immediate benefit from doing something that doesn’t aid the present. Why is it that, currently, recycling seems like a superfluous undertaking when it should be recognised as a responsibility to society? Why is it that energy saving weeks (in school) act as novelty token gestures to satisfy our green awareness? Essentially there is no tangible perceptible reward for being sustainable. There is no instantaneous change because the effects are for the long-term. Yes, the occasional recycled pencil case or recycling bin might cross my path, yet it provides no real motivation to endlessly sort rubbish, prohibit 4x4’s and deter me from my nearest goal. Absolutely, sustainability doesn’t appeal.
I use sustainability as a word to assuage my guilt or promote an argument and I fail to put sustainability in the present. Sustainability is the capacity to endure, yet to endure we must begin (being sustainable). All too often the assumption is that all sustainability is positive, and to an extent there can be no flaw in thinking about future generations, but, when this detracts from the richness of life that each of us desires than surely this is cause to presuppose that sustainability is time wasting and thinning our limited time on earth. Obviously sustainability means different things in different mediums, but the question remains the same (whether it is business sustainability or ones carbon footprint): why is sustainability worth fighting for?

I too ‘endorse the idea of starting small’[1] but where is the impetus. Essentially, when thinking of sustainability in ‘green’ terms, it is fighting a losing battle. The polluting world we have constructed is far too developed to deconstruct and reverse its corrosive effects. We can slow effects admittedly, but inevitably one must accept that with growing population, whatever we do the quell pollution in, for instance, Britain or our own homes; energy consumption elsewhere is increasing quicker, so there is no improvement. Why should I recycle two cans of beans when GlaxoSmithKline is building a new factory in Ulverston? It seems to be like disarmament in the 1920’s; unless everyone universally disarms then no one will do it. Yes we agree it’s a fine idea, nonetheless we don’t want to move first, and thus we keep arming (or negating sustainability). If I don’t feel that everyone is making the same efforts as me and giving as much time as I am, why bother? To assuage guilt by means of ‘five minutes a day’ [2] doing ‘something green’? Well not if GlaxoSmithKline feels no culpability.  Yes, this case isn't immediately transferable to business, but arguably, why would a business reduce short-term profits to maintain smaller profits over 100 years, when bluntly the people working there won’t receive the award. This raises moral questions about how much we value the future over our own personal gain but essentially it brings me back to my first point: why doesn't sustainability appeal, and now ,more importantly, how can we make it appeal?

There is no easy way to make people aid something they will never experience and will never know about, but inherently there is a desire to leave a legacy. What should be promoted is the power of legacy and the prospect of people in 2120 admiring the ’17-year-old boy who recycled his whole life, so that we could live in a better world’. Thus, sustainability should be passed down, recycled through generations, so that despite it not being universal, it becomes tradition or your inheritance. Legacy appeals!

Matthew David Llewellyn Jackman

[1] http://green24.com/aboutus.php
[2] Ibid