About 15 years ago, I began feeling angry with the world about the way we were all abusing our planet, depleting natural resources, ravaging our forests, chasing our wildlife into extinction and polluting the water and the air. That anger soon turned into indignation, as I found that there were things I could do personally to limit or lessen my negative impact on the world, and I couldn’t understand why others did not do the same. I began with small steps – buying organic food, throwing away home cleaning chemicals, getting a wormery, recycling, taking my own bags to the supermarket. Then, as my sense of outrage grew, so did the scale of my efforts – insulating the house with sheep’s wool; putting in air sourced heat pumps in place of the oil boiler; switching to an electric car.
My friends and colleagues tended to joke about my earnest and slightly judgemental green behaviour – they did not enjoy the experience of being made to feel bad about their own lifestyles by inference of my own actions.
I started a blog to talk about what a minefield ethical living was and how so many decisions were made difficult by the complex moral dilemmas they presented. Should I incur food miles by buying items that provided much needed income to impoverished communities, or always local and seasonal instead? When switching to an electric vehicle – how could avoid still buying dirty electricity from the grid? Living in the countryside means being closer to nature and yet not having access to public transport, which increases car use.
But what frustrated me more than anything was that as time went on and the clock ticked ever closer to the ‘two degrees threshold’ deadline, people around me didn’t seem to be awakening to ‘the truth’ and changing their behaviour too. In fact, even though eventually public opinion reluctantly shifted towards a majority (in the UK at least) believing in anthropological climate change, the pool of people actually willing to change their lifestyles to do something about it remained depressingly tiny. What I began to realise is that there was very little that could be done to ‘make people care’ about these issues, and that the biggest turn off of all was sanctimonious and judgemental behaviour from self-appointed eco warriors. At a talk I attended last week Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at Marks and Spencer shared some interesting insights – he explained that the firmly eco- converted or ‘Dark Green’ demographic represents around 10% of the UK population. He said that M&S research has shown this number has stayed pretty much static over the last 10 years or so and that they don’t really expect it to grow or change in the coming years. And whist I was happily taking my reusable coffee cup to be filled up in Pret, it represented but a drop in the ocean of plastic that was amassing from the deluge of plastic packaging from every avenue of consumer life. So there seemed little point in belly aching about what others were not doing, when I realised the miniscule amount of impact that could be made by me and my fellow dark greens was never going to solve the big issues before the Big Deadline.
So what must be done? The answer is that sustainability has to go mainstream. The sustainable world has to offer things which are a strong, attractive, competitively-priced, better alternatives to the products, services and lifestyles we are all so attached to. Because we can berate and cajole people to eat less meat, travel less often and consume fewer goods all we like, but the universal truth is that societies don’t move backwards. They move forwards through disruption, innovation, change for the better.
Millennials may be more interested in ethical issues than ever before, more health conscious, as well as less likely to put up with inequality or inherent abuse of power. But the rate of change that occurs if we wait for consumer demand to drive it 100% is incremental. We do not have enough time to wait until Veganuary goes from tens of thousands of people giving up meat for a month to the majority doing so permanently, especially as the fastest growing populations are only now acquiring a taste for burgers…
Most consumers won’t change their behaviour out of a sense of duty to the planet. They will get on board because Nike’s new trainers made from sustainable bamboo are even cooler than the rubber ones and don’t cost more. Or the electric is a better driving experience that allows us to get where we need to go without paying through the nose for petrol. And it’s the Impossible Burger that will save the planet before meat eaters give up the taste for beef.
The sooner that the old deep green sector gets on board with this the better,, so we can all direct our collective energies to the same goal – which is getting sustainability to go mainstream within the planet’s precarious timescale.