When the world went into lockdown, the planet had a chance to breathe. But can this be a turning point towards creating a better, more sustainable world. It can and it must, says Raechel Kelly, founder of environmental change agency The Liminality
The past few months have been a time of agony for some, boredom for others, and strangeness for pretty much all of humanity. The ‘great pause’ has revealed essential truths about our relationship with each other and the planet around us.
While there were many stories of ‘nature healing’ or ‘returning’, this narrative reinforces the idea that we are somehow above or apart from nature. In fact, we are very much part of it. What happens in one part of the world – deforestation, or the capture of wild animals, for instance – can affect us all. Once we start to see ourselves as part of the delicate cycles and systems of nature, rather than as ‘rulers’ or ‘owners’, we start to make meaningful choices about what we prioritise.
Many places have seen shifts towards slower living, increased walking and cycling, and lower air pollution. The hope is that these shifts become permanent, and humanity collectively decides to ‘build back better’. The next decade’s actions will decide to what extent we are able to prevent further climate breakdown. But these issues can seem overwhelming, leaving people feeling confused, scared, guilty or paralysed into inaction.
What actions should we take? Saying no to a straw often seems like a drop in the ocean. Can individual actions on issues like climate change, plastic waste or air pollution achieve anything? Surely only systemic change can achieve better outcomes for people and the planet?
The truth is that it isn’t a choice between the two. Both are needed and systems are made up of individuals. One fish can change the direction of a shoal; one person’s actions can alter the course of history. So how can you turbo-charge your everyday choices to have the greatest impact and catalyse lasting system change?
Individual action isn’t about buying stuff, so this isn’t a shopping list. We can’t buy our way out of over-consumption. Our worth and power isn’t just as consumers, although it’s useful to think of every pound or dollar we spend as a vote for the world we want. The biggest potential for impact often lies within our families, schools, clubs and workplaces. Think about your power as a citizen, not a consumer. Take a moment to list the social spheres in which your individual actions could have the biggest impact. Think of each action as a seed that you sow in the world.
Science tells us that it takes only around twenty per cent of any population changing their behaviour for this to become the new norm within the group. Every time you model a behaviour, or talk about a change you’ve made, the seeds that you plant take root with your colleagues, family or friends.
There’s no one way of doing sustainability right. It looks different according to our needs as individuals. Social media may tell us that sustainability looks like labelled mason jars, evangelical veganism and expensive electric cars, but those with the smallest carbon footprints will reuse jars they already have, eat locally and ethically, and use bikes and public transport. Shifting towards slower and more intentional living involves questioning what is labelled as ‘perfect’ and realising that imperfection is beautiful and growth is not linear. ‘Perfect’ can often be the enemy of good.
SUPPORT RENEWABLE ENERGY
You don’t need to own solar panels or a wind turbine to support renewable energy. Switch to a provider like Bulb, Ecotricity or Good Energy to power your home with sunshine and wind rather than polluting fossil fuels. Support projects that seek to reduce our reliance on those fuels. Once the clean-up and health costs are included, they start to look incredibly uneconomical compared to free energy from renewable sources.
In 1931, Thomas Edison said, ‘We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy: sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.’ Governments worldwide should be backing solar, wind and tidal energy.
THINK ABOUT TRANSPORT
Planes, trains and automobiles? How about buses, bikes and roller-skates? Consider replacing shorter car journeys with walking or cycling. If that feels impossible, question local representatives about why the healthiest options for transport aren’t the default safe options.
Thinking about longer trips and holidays? Consider your options. If you’re lucky enough to have the privilege of time or money, investigate rail for longer trips, and limit unavoidable air travel to two flights per year.
Talk, talk, talk about the issues. Climate change. Waste. Inequality. Pollution. Every conversation opens the window a little further, and paves the way for the next conversation. This is especially crucial when it comes to children. Talk to them in an age-appropriate way about the natural world and our reliance on it. Kids often understand these things quicker than adults. Meet them at their level of understanding and focus on the hopefulness of action and human ingenuity, rather than the bleakness of some of the science.
Eco-anxiety is real, so make sure kids know they can turn to you or other trusted adults to help. Most importantly, show them that you are working hard to fix things. In practical terms, it is inevitable that sustainability will form part of their job when they are older. Whether they are a lawyer, doctor, nurse or engineer, they will deal with the issues that a changing climate creates.
But the burden of ‘changing the world’ shouldn’t be placed on our young people’s shoulders alone. School curriculums haven’t quite caught up in terms of giving kids the knowledge they will need. Support teenagers to do their own reading and research about sustainability and what it might mean to them.
Have parents or neighbours who think there’s no problem? Find a hook. If they are gardeners, they will have noticed how the seasons and weather are getting mixed up. If they are nature-lovers, they may not be seeing the same wildlife they saw as children. Draw the line at arguing with those who outright deny or antagonise about environmental and social issues. Focus your efforts on the open-minded and remember that modelling behaviours is often more effective than lecturing people.
MAKE YOURSELF HEARD
Voting and activism aren’t always thought of as individual actions, but your voice is your most powerful weapon. Ask your representatives what they are doing to address environmental and social issues. Politicians only take issues such as climate change seriously if they believe the electorate care about them.
The most common question I’m asked is, ‘What can I do?’ My answer is always the same: ‘I don’t know – what can you do?’ Activism isn’t just shouting in the street: it can be writing, organising or even crafting. Everyone – mothers, artists, chefs, bankers, scientists – has strengths and skills that can be tapped and used as forces for change. In the words of Greta Thunberg – the Swedish teenager who began the school strike movement – ‘No one is too small to make a difference.’
We don’t think of the power in our pensions and investments, but they may be the biggest tools we have in the fight against unsustainable business practices. Pensions are investments in our future, and they should be investments in the kind of future we want.
You have the right to question how your workplace or private pension is invested, and request that it be screened for environmental and social risk. Likewise, if you have an investment portfolio, ask your financial advisor about sustainable and ethical options. You don’t need to compromise returns by investing according to your principles. The economy relies on a thriving planet, not the other way around.
REDUCE, RE-USE, RECYCLE
There’s a reason those words are in that order. Recycling should be a last resort and the focus should very much be on reduction and re-use wherever possible. When we throw something away, there isn’t an ‘away’ for it to go to. Everything has to go somewhere on Earth!
For clothes, buy once and buy well. Invest in quality and craftsmanship, and – if you can – borrow instead of buying.
Some single-use plastics can be easy to avoid. For starters, choose reusable bottles and coffee cups. Other single-use plastics can be harder to ditch. This is where you can use your consumer voice to greatest effect. Text, tweet and email brands to ask what they’re doing to remove such items. If their answer is recycling rather than reduction, let them know you’ll be looking at alternative products.
WWF carbon calculator footprint.wwf.org.u This easy tool calculates your biggest personal impacts and suggests actions to reduce them.
UN Global Goals globalgoals.org A set of 17 goals that signatory countries have undertaken to reach by 2030. Not perfect by any means, but the best framework for tackling the issues we face collectively.
Why Women Will Save the Planet
zedbooks.net Short essays from women around the world working to tackle climate change fill this collaborative book from C40 cities and Friends of the Earth.
Mothers of Invention
mothersofinvention.online Mary Robinson’s fantastic podcast discusses the intersections of feminism and climate action.
The Liminality theliminality.co.uk Instagram @theliminality.co.uk •