Phrases like “protect Earth” or “save the planet” have been calling cards of environmental action for decades. With increasing awareness of the impacts of pollution and the growth of the hole in the ozone layer we were (and still are) encouraged to think of not just ourselves but the environment. Plants and animals would go extinct, forests disappear and rivers clog with plastic so we needed to change.
Despite progress over the past few decades we still face considerable environmental problems with climate change looming largest of these. Perhaps it’s time to accept that people don’t actually care that much about the planet.
Well, this isn’t entirely true. Majorities in all 22 countries surveyed in IPSOS’ Global Trends report agreed that we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits. Not that individual behaviour change alone will solve these issues. Addressing environmental problems is going to require technological, political, business and legal shifts. But all of these are linked by how we see the our impact as humans on the environment. Appealing to us to think of the planet does not seem to be enough.
Perhaps its time we started making it clear that thinking of the planet means thinking of ourselves and our well being too. Take plastic. By 2050 it is estimated that there could be more of this ubiquitous material in our oceans, by weight, than fish. This alone should be impetus for us to demand rapid change in innovating and finding alternatives to plastic.
But it’s unlikely. Headlines like this come and go weekly. Consider though that this plastic is already entering our food chain and thus our bodies. Microplastics are present in salt from around the world and people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year potentially presenting long-term health risks!
Or fossil fuels. Burning coal, oil and gas to create electricity and fuel our vehicles and industry is responsible for 60% of global carbon emissions which are driving climate change. Yet air pollution, in the form of microscopic particles, emitted by these same fuels is also responsible for around 6.5 million premature deaths a year according to the International Energy Agency.
And climate change. It can be easy to think of it as something that will simply affect the natural world, raising sea levels, causing hotter summers and melting polar bears’ homes. But it will impact us hard. Climate change is predicted to lead to increased health impacts, more forced migration, threats to food security and even conflict over newly scarce resources like water. Those who will experience the worst of this are likely to be the disadvantaged and residents of developing countries.
It’s clear that pollution which damages the environment damages us. After all, as much as we might forget it, particularly living in cities, we exist in and thanks to the environment. Degrading it hurts us.
This is a potentially powerful message, one we should be telling ourselves, each other, our governments and businesses: caring for the planet means caring for ourselves. Indeed, research into the effectiveness of communicating climate change as a public health, rather than environmental, issue indicates potential for increasing concern if these messages are repeated and reinforced by respected authorities. Perhaps by framing environmental issues broadly around how they will impact people we can spur ourselves to meet the challenges of reducing our environmental impacts and creating sustainable societies.
Photo at top: Adam Jones, Flickr