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Opinion

There are big issues. And then there’s the planet

Let’s declare war on the ignorances that surround us and make the environment the key to all changes

The most pressing matter must be the life of the planet. There will be 10 billion of us by the next generation. It was 2.5 billion when I was born. Yet we seem to get drawn into other arguments that fail to bear down on the fact that our ability to function as human beings will terminate some time soon, if we don’t act now. How soon is soon is open to speculation, depending on which expert you speak to.

The environment seems to be the big issue. But the problem is, how do you crack open this particular nut? By which I mean how do you crack the nut that, although lots of people talk about the environment, most people are more tied up with other things. Like getting through the day. Making ends meet.

In fact most people who exist in the world at the moment are having a hard time of things. They are up against it. So drawing them into arguments about the life of the planet seems as relevant as asking them to choose the new wallpaper for a royal palace.

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So if the environment is the big Big One then how do we get it into the minds of people who are exhausted just surviving? How do we move the fight for the environment away from solely those that have the time and energy to contemplate the life of the future planet? And pass it on also to those who don’t have the luxury to conceive of risks that are not immediate.

Not to say that the planet’s health is not threatened immediately. The loss of species – a UN report says we’re threatening one million with extinction – means a decreasing ability to experiment with natural products coming out of a biodiverse world: and this lays us open to pandemics. Not being able to learn from a disappearing nature will seriously stymie our ability to counter the pandemics of the future.

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The environment must become the concern of all of us and for that there’s a need to destroy poverty and increase the educated of the world. A world where people have more means to allow them to look up from their daily strife.

Therefore we have to wrap a number of things into the fight for the environment. It can’t just be seen as a single issue. The fight to end poverty must be seen as an environmental issue. The fight for education must be seen as a fight for the environment. The fight for social justice must be seen as an environmental fight.

The fight for the environment must be seen as a fight to cluster our concerns into this big portmanteau that enables us to spread justice and opportunity in a green and sustainable way.

If we do not push environmentalism up the list of our concerns we may well be accused by future generations of fiddling while Rome burns. Or to take a DiCaprio-Winslet-inspired variation: rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to be asking big questions about our purchases, for instance our soya-laced coffee: is it the soya that’s grown in the destroyed rainforests of the Amazon? Are our plastic cups and bottles heading towards the river, the sea, and then the ocean?

The fight to end poverty must be seen as an environmental issue

At the end of Covid-19, if this is not mere wishful thinking, we need to be asking how we repair and sustain nature. And not allow the world to become a vast tip. Or a bigger tip than it is at the moment.

To think that all the really big damage to the world has been done in the last 50 years. How quick it becomes a case of extinction and not simply a slow erosion as it has been since the time of the Romans.

Of course at the same time we have to encourage the growth of the science that can prevent the worst effects of this shrinkage of the natural world. We have to try and protect the seas and the air we breathe and find ways of cleaning up the debris that is already about us.

But the environment has to become sticky to us all, and not simply to the committed. And that should involve an enormous fight against the exhaustion of working and feeding the family.

One thing the governments of the world could do is put a price on every bottle that is ever produced from plastic. Every coffee cup, every little piece of litter. Put a price on it and thus monetise it, like beer bottles and soda bottles. Look upon plastic as a harvest which we can rid from the world because it raises cash for people needing it.

Once again let me repeat a little story I heard about Anita Roddick; I’ve used this over many years:

Anita was in Nepal and was told that the streams from the mountain waters were drying up because the cyclamen flower was growing in the streams and blocking the easy flow. Anita found out from a paper merchant that you could make paper out of cyclamen. So she called for as much of it as possible.

It became a crop. And hence soon stopped blocking the waterways.

We need that kind of thinking around plastic. But a lot, lot more. Let’s declare war on the ignorances that surround us and make the environment the key to all changes.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue.

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