Warning: This post starts off factual, but ends up in a bit of a meditation about life, the universe and everything. Please stick with it!
On 5th April, Netflix released a groundbreaking new series, Our Planet. Presented by Sir David Attenborough, it combines (the usual) stunning footage of the most spectacular and beautiful hidden bits of nature on Earth.
But what this series also does is warn about the climate crisis and about the increasing pressures that the climate catastrophe, caused by human activity, is having on ecosystems, and the creatures and plants that depend on them.
In a video filmed for the series, Sir David stated:
“If I were to give one piece of advice to people regarding the preservation of our planet, I would say – don’t waste. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste power. Don’t waste time.”
On a recent walk down by my local river, through the new green growth, blossom and leaves on the trees, I mused on each of these points – what each one means, what more it could mean. And I wanted to share a few of these thoughts with you here:
Don’t waste food
There’s the obvious point here – use up all the food you have at home, and don’t chuck it away. But if it were that simple, UK households would not be creating an estimated 7.1 million tonnes of food waste each year.
Clearly, there IS a problem. And it doesn’t appear to be solved by just pledging to eat what you’ve bought. On a basic, let’s-start-at-the-beginning level, we should consider three simple principles:
Why are you buying it? Do you have a plan to eat all this food? Or are you buying it because you’re hungry while trying to do a food shop and everything looks good, because it’s on special offer, even though you’re not sure what you’ll actually eat it with? Then STOP.
Before you buy food, consider what will go together in a dish, how much time you have to cook that week, and whether it’s something you’ll actually eat rather than let languish at the back of the cupboard.
How much are you buying? If it’s pre-packaged, are you actually going to eat all of it before it spoils? If not, could it be frozen in portions, rather than waiting to go off in the back the fridge? If it’s fresh fruit or veg, buy individual items and be realistic about how much you really are likely to eat.
Do you know how to store it correctly? It’s often not just a case of buying the right food, but storing it to last. Extend the life of fresh herbs, spring onions and carrots by storing upright in a jar of water in the fridge. Keep potatoes in a cool dark place so they don’t sprout, keep mushrooms in a paper bag in the fridge so they can breathe. And freeze anything freezable that’s reaching its ‘use by’ date.
BUT! In addition to these principles, we need to start thinking about what food is inherently wasteful in its production, before it ever reaches us. For example:
- Beef and dairy: the production and keeping of cattle requires huge amounts of resources – producing a kilo of beef takes 15,415 litres of water. In comparison, a kilo of tofu takes 2,520 litres. The BBC recently reported on a study which found that ‘producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts and more than 10 times as much as the same amount of oat milk‘.
- Air-freighted produce: It is estimated that air-freighting takes 50 times the energy of shipping by sea, 33 times that of rail transport, and four times that of truck transport. The types of food that are likely to be air-freighted to your area will depend on where you live, but if it’s quick to spoil and grown in a far-away location, this should be a hint that it may have got to you via a carbon-intensive method.
So think local, seasonal and plant-based – if it’s grown nearby and without the need for additional climate control (i.e. heated greenhouses), it’ll have lower food miles and likely be less carbon intensive. Try this excellent calculator made by the BBC which allows you to calculate the carbon footprint of a wide range of foods and for UK readers, this interactive fruit and veg calendar.
Don’t waste power
Access to electricity and gas is so ubiquitous to those of us living in the Global North it has become invisible in its amazingness. How often do we really stop to think how incredible it is that we have access to heating and cooling at the touch of a button, as well as light and cooking sources whenever we want? But we should consider what a privilege it is – an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide still don’t have access to electricity.
It is absolutely right that everyone should have access to the tools needed to give them a good quality of life. But we also need to recognise that the vast majority of power created and used is to the detriment of all life, with around 80% of worldwide energy consumption coming from fossil fuels.
We all know the massive problems that fossil fuels cause in terms of extraction, land use, carbon emissions and pollution (and if you disagree with the science on this, this blog is probably not for you). The transition to renewables cannot come soon enough, and to this end I would encourage anyone who can do so to switch to an energy supplier that provides green power. Our personal choice is Ecotricity, who supply 100% renewable electricity and frack-free gas (and is working towards growing its green gas provision).
But a green energy supply isn’t enough in itself. It still takes huge amounts of resources to build wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams. And while I’d ask you to take a hefty dose of scepticism to the claim that it takes more energy to build a wind turbine than it will produce (the data actually shows a turbine with an expected lifespan of 20 years will offer a net benefit in terms of energy payback within eight months), it would be equally foolish to not acknowledge the materials and energy needed to produce them.
So we do need to save power, and this includes individuals, companies, public resources, all of us. Everyone knows to turn off lights and not leave electronics on standby by now (don’t they?). There are already plenty of excellent posts about different ways to save power, so rather than say the same thing here, I can recommend the following blog posts:
10 ways to save energy and reduce your bills by Vicky at Homegrown and Foraged
15 Easy Ways to Save Energy (And Money!) by Wendy at Moral Fibres
But there’s another aspect to this statement that I want to consider – the power we have as friends, colleagues, neighbours, citizens, and family to share our knowledge and inspire change.
While I don’t suggest lecturing people on all the things they’re doing wrong (let’s face it, no one likes being criticised and they’re more likely to be thinking about defending themselves than actually making changes if they feel attacked), we can all consider the influence we can have by choosing to live in accordance with our values:
- If you’re a parent, your children learn attitudes and habits from you. If you show them the value of nature, by knowing the names of wildflowers in your local park or picking up litter, to sharing skills of cooking, mending and growing, you’re passing on an appreciation that can last a lifetime.
- Lobby your MP and councillors (or other representatives) on environmental issues – remind them that the UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency and that you expect them to act on it! If you live in an area where your representative only has a small majority, or the seat frequently changes hands between parties, double down on this. Petition them, ask questions, meet with them and let them know your vote is dependent on their environmental record.
- Remember the ‘soft power’ you have simply by being friends with your friends – cook them your favourite plant-based meals, suggest walks out in nature together, swap clothes and books, borrow and lend whatever you can – from drills to suitcases – to save on resources. Champion your values in a way that shows that environmental living isn’t about going without or living a life of deprivation, but can be a massively positive force.
Don’t waste time
Sir David is right – we mustn’t waste time because quite simply, we no longer have the time to waste. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in October 2018 that could scarcely have laid out the climate emergency in clearer terms: if we don’t take action to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2030, we ‘significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people‘.
That sounds pretty bad by itself, but there is another looming, equally urgent and deeply interwoven crisis. A report released in May 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services showed, as laid out starkly in this Guardian article, ‘one million species are currently threatened with extinction and we are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our modern world depends‘.
How could it possibly get more alarming than that? And how do we not become paralysed by fear, denial, or misery?
Because these crises combine to make an even bigger crisis that is so very strange, huge, urgent and impossible, and yet for many of us somehow so invisible and seemingly distant – the collective responses in different sections of society seems to mirror that of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance:
We *still* have people actually denying that it’s happening, and even if it is, that it isn’t humanity’s fault. Alarmingly, we have that in the Presidents of the USA and Brazil, leaders of two of the most important countries in the fight against climate chaos. One from the country with the highest carbon footprint per person and the other where the Amazon rainforest lies, a forest which absorbs a quarter of the CO2 absorbed by all the land on Earth.
We are starting to see anger – in the form of the School Strike 4 Climate for example, where the frustration at older generations’ inaction has been positively harnessed through protest. They are right to be angry. We should all be angry! But we need that anger to translate into positive action by government and business.
Unfortunately, at the same time as we have people taking to the streets to protest at this inaction, we have people pushing back against this, trying to bargain their way out of taking action. You’ll hear this in the form of ‘but we’re just one little country, we can’t do anything while China/India continues to pump out emissions, blah blah blah‘ or something similar.
I have no patience with this argument at all. Look at all of the energy-guzzling technology in your house. We have outsourced a huge amount of our own carbon emissions to poorer countries where it can be made more cheaply. THOSE ARE STILL OUR EMISSIONS AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO BUY THEM! Even worse, once we’re done with them, they frequently get shipped back to other countries where our waste pollutes their food chain and destroys their ecosystems.
Those of us in rich countries need to not only acknowledge this reality now, but also look to the past to see how much of our own wealth and privilege has come from exploiting poorer countries’ materials and people. It is our responsibility to not only consume less and take responsibility for the waste we produce as a result of our consumption, but to support other countries to reach higher standards of living via low carbon and environmentally sustainable principles.
There is a growing acceptance of the emotional toll of climate change. In 2017, the American Psychological Association issued a report called Mental Health and our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance. The report recognised that ‘gradual impacts of climate change, like changes in weather patterns and rising sea levels, will cause some of the most resounding chronic psychological consequences‘, including strains on social relationships, depression, anxiety, as well as feelings of helplessness, fear, fatalism, solastalgia, and ecoanxiety.
I understand this deeply. For every day that it feels like change is coming and I’m inspired by brilliant people, there is a day where the crushing weight of the realisation of the scale of the challenge feels too huge to bear. I think it’s important that we talk to other people about these feelings in an environment where we can feel supported, if possible. Being paralysed by sadness neither helps us as individuals nor responds to the climate crisis.
This is where we – as a whole society – need to get to. As soon as possible. There is a crisis, we need to confront it, and we need to do it now. We must stop wasting time – especially on the denial and bargaining fronts. Through the power and voices of individuals like David Attenborough, and other visionaries such as Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, Chris Packham and Kate Raworth, the case to not waste time has rarely been so powerfully and eloquently made.
My final plea to you in this perhaps rather long and rambling collection of thoughts would be this: don’t waste your own time. We don’t know what the future holds in terms of the global challenges we may face, but each day is still our own. As well as the all the ‘save-the-world’ stuff we need to be getting on with, take the time to tell the people around you that you love them, walk in your local park and listen to the birds, just take some time to enjoy a moment’s silence. Don’t waste.