Air pollution due to heavy traffic in Bangkok, Thailand; © Martin Harvey / WWF

Time is Running Out

14th September 2018

Ever felt anxious or confused about the state of the environment, but powerless to do anything about it? Jack Watkins has been reading a new book in support of the World Wildlife Fund that offers timely advice on 12 Small Acts To Save Our World…

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the naturalist Chris Packham. We agreed that the current crop of politicians were a hopeless bunch, fiddling while the state of the nation’s wildlife got worse by the year. Next, we established that if Michael Gove, who has made a lot of positive noises since he became Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, really meant what he said, he would reverse the neutering of the supposedly independent advisory quango Natural England that has been going on since 2010. The trouble is, however, that you get the politicians you deserve. Conservationists tend to be a mild-mannered bunch, avoiding confrontation, and we the public have been too casual about the despoliation of the natural world that has been – and continues to be – carried out in our name.

That’s all very well for you and Packham to say, I hear you cry, but what the hell are we supposed to do? Well, it might be helpful to remember this. When the idea to sell off the public forests for a fast buck was floated in 2012, and the middle classes rose up in anger, remember how quickly the government plans wilted like a delicate young sapling in a drought summer? And see how mass concern about plastics arising from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet documentary also spurred the state into action? If politicians and movers and shakers in the commercial world really believed that the electorate was clued up on and motivated by environmental issues, there’s no doubt it would soon be reflected in actions at Westminster, local council and business level.

Now a new book from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), offers a few achievable tips that ‘can send a message to our leaders in governments and to corporate boardrooms that there’s a larger movement – a groundswell of people who want those in power to enact change on a planetary scale.’ A lot of the actions recommended seem pretty much like common sense, but it backs them with some interesting supporting information that might help good intentions translate into action.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, do you leave the tap running all the time, or do you just switch it on when it comes to the rinse stage? I never realised that a running tap can waste six litres, or 10.5 pints of water, in a minute, according to Waterwise, a company that focuses on reducing water consumption in the UK. Assuming you brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes, that amounts to 24 litres a day going down the plughole, 168 litres a week, and 8,700 litres of wasted water a year. That’s pretty grim statistic when you think that a third of the world’s population face a severe lack of water for at least one month a year, and that one in six of the world population don’t have access to clean water at all.

By 2030 it is estimated that almost half of us will be living in areas where there isn’t enough water. If that still sounds like somebody else’s problem, remember that the UK’s own Environment Agency has warned that our already overstretched water resources, combined with climate change and a rising population, could see significant supply shortages by the 2015, especially affecting the south east of the country, ‘hurting people and wildlife alike’.

Then there is the matter of walking. I walk a lot because it is good for me but if you leave the car in the drive and walk, run, or use a bike, it is also good for the planet. Apparently, global transport makes up just under a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuels, with most of it coming from road traffic. And, unfortunately, the UK is one of those parts of the Earth where transport has overtaken the power sector as the biggest source of carbon emissions. Whereas decades ago, it was the belching industrial pylons that were the agents of air poison, in the 21st century it is the car. ‘Cars’, says the book, ‘like gas boilers in your home, are small scale dirty power stations.’

One of the most heartbreaking problems we face is the destruction of the rainforests. Apart from the impact on wildlife, such as the orang-utan in Indonesia, forest clearance is also major contributor to climate change. Cutting down trees and forests is estimated to be responsible for about a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions; conversely, if we managed to reduce deforestation and plant more trees, that would be a big curb on climate-warming emissions.

All well and good, but what action can one individual take? Watch the paper usage, the book suggests. Computerisation was supposed to reduce the need for paper, but has actually increased it. Think whether you really need a paper copy of a document; when you receive an e-ticket for an event via your phone, 12 Small Acts urges you to avoid printing it out.
Switching to paperless statements or bills is another way to cut paper use. When it comes to buying paper, check for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) mark, which ensures that paper comes from well-managed forests, from Scandinavia to the Congo Basin, and Brazil to China.

The issue of the rainforests really cuts to the heart of why we all do need to be more savvy about the natural world and our environment. Even though Western naturalists have been exploring the rainforest of the Amazon region for centuries, they are still discovering creatures – new species of monkeys and dolphins, for example, together with a puffbird named after Barack Obama (Nystalus obamai) that we didn’t even know existed. If we are more clued up on these sort of issues, the decision makers will surely follow. Michael Gove has, famously, had enough of experts, but perhaps he will listen to us.

‘12 Small Acts To Save Our World: You Can Make A Difference’ is published by Century

Find Your Local