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3rd February 2016

How bad does it get before we care?

Tristan Parsons hones in on what we all know to be true. The environment is a pressing issue, but very few people care enough to do anything

What a tedious subject to write on. I still don’t believe this was a conscious decision. Environmentalism is that thing that sits at the back of one’s mind, soaking up events and fact and news, but never really sitting up and coming to attention. Recently, we heard that 2015 was the warmest year on record (with El Niño finally overcoming the cooling effects of recent volcanic activity). But, in our temperate biome—unless, of course you live in this winter’s flooded areas—environmental issues don’t affect our lives too much. Earlier in the year, the world’s leaders met in Paris and they basically solved climate change. Either that or their collective and individual plans put the earth on course to peak at three or four degrees of warming. Before that, wild fire in Indonesia created a mess that will cost as much to clean up as the 2004 tsunami. I nearly wrote a piece about it, but I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say.

I hope I’m not boring you already. See, that is quite a common reaction. If ‘the biggie’, climate change, isn’t met with rolling eyes, the other three planetary boundaries that put humanity’s current level of existence at risk will soon send you to sleep. Nitrogen and phosphorous levels are in the danger zone, threatening crop production and ecosystem sustainability across the world. Biodiversity is also at high risk, and worse, some scientists are predicting a ‘cliff’ is to come. Even land use is at a more dangerous level than (current) global warming. There are still the issues of freshwater use and ocean acidification. Even if we were to save ourselves, there is a building consensus that human activity has created a new epoch in earth history, the ‘Anthropocene’.

It can be draining discussing these issues. Most opinion writers or journalists have roots in the social sciences, arts, or humanities. But this is science: There is no real arguing for these people to do. Anyone that actively stands in front of an overwhelming scientific consensus is a conspiracy theorist (see, Donald Trump) or has vested interests. This lack of debate is partly why environmental issues turn people off.

The more interesting bits are the economics and politics behind the issues, and that is what I think we should start to talk about more: The corporations behind palm oil and deforestation, the madness of the US cities that sit in the deserts, or the vested interests I have touched on. Of course, looking at the bigger picture, a significant section of the media has an interest in strangling debate about environmentalism. Maintaining an oil- and gas-based economy is essential to the fortunes of so many companies and individuals, even countries. This feeds into public discourse.

One thing I realised last year was that, if I was to be true to my cause, I should be vegetarian or vegan, because of the devastating impact the meat industry has on the environment. Amazingly, the beef industry has a bigger footprint than cars. The levels of water and land used dwarf the other meats as well. Sadly, and frustratingly, it’s too ingrained into my diet. However, it’s something I am becoming far more aware of. That’s a bit of a ‘hippy-dippy’, thing to say, surely? There’s another problem: We need to start consuming less stuff, or different types of stuff. And to a large proportion of the developed world, that is a frightening and frustrating proposal. Yes, the ‘tree hugger’ connotation still haunts us.

But what does the public see? Whilst a lot of environmental stories don’t hit the news, it is still difficult to correlate arguments about environmental change to the events that take place in the relatively small time-span of a year. This year, water stress and drought strangled California, northern Iran, and central Asia, amongst many areas. But people still refer to the hiatus in warming since the turn of the century as evidence against global warming (no, the long-term warming since the industrial revolution is still far out of place compared to observable patterns). And, scale is crucial to bear in mind: The impacts of climate change will not occur all over the world, rather, in specific regions.

And this was the year that was a good one for environmentalism, right? Well, although goodwill drooled out of world leaders’ mouths, palm oil companies were heavily criticised for not making enough progress on deforestation, Saudi Arabia flooded the oil market, assuring oil companies of their futures, and, closer to home, the Conservatives slashed subsidies for renewables and pushed on with the methane-leaking process, fracking.

Thank my lucky stars that that jargon-littered saga is over. Now I can relax my grey matter and fixate on the short term. I can go back to writing on sexy politics. I can do this guilt-free, because on planet earth, everything seems okay; everything is calm. Keep the people quiet and they’ll continue to drive to work, fly around the world, and buy vegetables that come from deserts. And when the storms and the seas and the deserts come, there will be those who can afford the luxury of escape and protection. But the masses, once afraid of change, are left isolated on a raft in the ocean, as the state slowly, quietly, but surely, recedes.

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