Chris Packham: “We could watch our Earth burn or start fixing things”

Writing exclusively for The Big Issue, environmental campaigner Chris Packham explains why we absolutely must listen to David Attenborough's urgent words of warning

If you are reading this and you are not aware that 1) Climate change is happening and threatens the future of all life on earth, 2) Tigers, elephants and rhinos are being ruthlessly poached to extinction, 3) Plastic waste is a serious threat to marine life, 4) Air quality in our cities is seriously endangering our health – I could go on. And on – then you are a very rare human. We ALL know about these issues. The critical question is why we haven’t been doing anything about it?

It’s always tempting to say it is because ‘they’ should be fixing it. The ‘they’ typically being politicians at local, national and international levels. But come on, look at them. The vast majority either genuinely don’t understand the severity of the problems, can only ever see in the short term, or are complicit in avoidance because they have vested  interests.

‘They’ are not going to fix things at this point in time. Recently our government published its 25-year plan for the environment. God help us. Words, most of the important ones missing, and target dates set so long into the future I nearly wept. And to think we paid for it too.

Environmental care is simply not high enough up on their agenda, and plenty of the worst kind still think continued economic growth is somehow sustainable. And none even want to acknowledge that the single most dangerous threat to our planet is that there are too many humans on it. Too difficult, not a vote winner, never mind.

So what do we do?

We could pour another drink, sit back and watch our earth burn. Or we could acknowledge our conscience and predicament and start fixing things. And to do that all we sometimes need is a kick up the arse.

David Attenborough is a kind, gentle, 91-year-old man, but together with the BBC he has just kicked some arse and started some action. Following his missive on Blue Planet II, plastics are now on everyone’s agenda – mine, yours, even perhaps our government’s (yeah, let’s see if words actually become actions). But why has it taken this one, albeit brilliant, naturalist and broadcaster to instigate something which many have been trying to do for years?

Trust. For me it’s trust. He tells the truth. He’s always told us the truth so we believe him. He has no more vested interest than his genuine and educated desire to help solve the world’s environment problems. Attenborough vs May vs Trump – who would you believe? No brainer.

The other problem is that these environmental issues are big issues. They can seem overwhelming, impossible for you and I to play any meaningful role in fixing. Wrong. I am one, we are many, together we are millions.

Let’s take plastic: the current mantra is ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. We can all do all of them. When you go shopping avoid excessive packaging. And if you can’t, politely tell the staff that you resent not having a choice to do so. We are the consumers, the power is in our pockets.

Dump the use of single use water bottles or coffee cups, buy a personal reuseable one – use it, wash it, re-use it. And when you do have to handle plastic, find the means to recycle it. If we could do this perfectly we would ‘close the circle’ and no plastic would escape into the environment.

But we are not perfect and there’s no chance that we will be any time soon, so plastic will still litter and damage our environment… unless we simply embrace new technologies.

Oxy-biodegradable plastic can be programmed to decay in the ‘wild’ with precision – so the bag or bottle that gets into the sea will be eaten by microbes in months or years, not centuries. We need a portfolio of measures and some pragmatic reality. Plastics like this need to be put into production as soon as possible. But they are not. Why? Guess. Yep, politics.

It is frankly embarrassing that so many of us realise the gravity of the environmental crisis and yet our elected representatives are almost invariably – there are exceptions – not engaging at all. I sincerely hope that we can vote for informed, committed and determined politicians in the relatively near future. Until then, it is down to us. It is about do-it-yourself. And if we don’t it, then we are just doing ourselves in.

“Plastic drinking straw?” “No thanks mate. Old world, dead world, I’m for the new world. Attenborough told me and he’s the man.”

By Chris Packham @ChrisGPackham