September 25th, 2020
REBELS FOR A CAUSE
Photography by Tris
Words by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
We humans are quite good at driving other species to extinction. We kill them, often illegally. We overfish our oceans and disturb the natural balance of marine species by pollution. As a species, we grow and grow and grow. In the 1960s there were 3 billion people in the world, and we are most likely going to see the global population reach 9 billion soon. And these people are consuming more and more of the earth's resources to sustain an ever more consumption-rich lifestyle. We pollute through industrial operations. We destroy almost all natural habitats. 75 percent of the land that is not covered by ice has been changed by humans. We emit so many greenhouse gases that we are looking at a global average temperature rise of 3-4 degrees, which has massive impacts that are already being felt in some of the world: more fires, more droughts, more severe storms and other disasters, and by consequence, more species extinctions.
Around 1 million animal and plant species are estimated to be under threat of extinction, more than ever before in human history. Many will have died out by the time a baby born today graduates from primary school. It is worse than expected, happening much faster than ever before. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) nature has been subject to an unprecedented rate of global change during the past 50 years. "The evidence is that unless immediate action is taken, this crisis has grave impacts for us all," warns David Attenborough in the recent and highly recommended BBC One documentary Extinction: The Facts.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” - Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the IPBES
Looking at all the harm we have done and continue to do, it is so easy to despair and lose hope. I often just want to throw in the towel or stick my head in the sand. But we cannot, we must not let things slide, not for ourselves, not for our children. We cannot look away from our own behaviours. We need to think of what we consume, and how much of it, and where it comes from. After all, there is no evidence that the purchase of just one more gadget makes us happy.
This includes what we eat, and how much of the food we buy we end up throwing away. We actually waste about forty percent of the food that is produced globally, so agricultural sustainability is also about reducing that food waste. Scientific evidence of the impact of our food systems on the environment clearly indicates that with adjustments of how we farm and what we eat, we could really improve the prospects for climate and species dramatically. We do not all have to turn vegetarian, but we can think about whether we really need to eat meat as often as we do, or cut back on dairy products, and if we can, buy from organic sources (which, if we are talking about eating meat, also to some extent and depending on the country you live in, may ensure better farm animal welfare).
So I try to be conscious of my own behaviours and how it contributes to that huge human footprint. It is pretty bad. My family owns a car. We occasionally fly for a long distance vacation. But I do try to reduce my personal impact. I sold my second car and started biking or taking public transport to work. I became a vegetarian only this year, and before that I ate meat rarely and only from organic sources. I plant insect-friendly flowers and herbs, and I do not use any insecticides on them. I lowered the thermostat by one degree in the winter to save energy, and we produce some of the electricity we use with photovoltaic panels. Those are little things, but they are a start. Many of us do care, and many of us want to make a difference, and we can. Not only with our consumption, but also by speaking up.
How is it that policy makers can act decisively on issues such as Covid-19 (because some really have done so), but not on issues that are just as important and that affect all our futures? It is because all they often worry about is the next election, and because it takes a very strong outpour of public discontent to make politicians change tack from business as usual. The impact of Covid-19 is being felt here and now, it is very immediate and in our face. But the impacts of climate change and species extinction are not being felt so immediately, at least not in the rich countries, where consumption is highest (although one could argue that the drastic bushfires in Australia last year, and now in California, are already impacts of climate change).
Ironically, there is a connection between this global pandemic and the environmental destruction we have wreaked on the planet, something that is well understood by wildlife veterinarians using a one health approach. Pandemics, ecology, and climate are interlinked in a delicate network. What we have done to our environment makes us, and wild animals, sick, and it displaces both wild animals and humans. In such conditions, diseases can easily take hold and in some cases, such as with Covid-19, jump from animals to humans, becoming zoonotic diseases.
And still, despite all scientific evidence, politics is painfully slow in reacting to the crisis. They make statements, big words that sound promising, but little action follows. So how can one get policy makers to act decisively? Protest, protest, protest. For real transformational change, politicians have to see a massive groundswell of citizens rising up to show they care about these issues, and the politics has to follow suit by making policies that provide the right kinds of incentives on a path towards more sustainable ways of living on our only home, this planet.
This is why several protest movements have been taking to the streets for. Such movements are not new, but the most noteworthy spark that brought millions of young people into the streets has been provided by Fridays for Future, a global climate strike movement that started in August 2018, when 15 year old Greta Thunberg began a school strike for climate.
"Our house is on fire!" - Greta Thunberg
That young student's action created a wave of strikes that have by now spread to 7,800 cities in 218 countries with 14 million strikers. These are truly rebels for a cause that is important to all of humanity. Today, on 25 September 2020, Fridays for Future is organising another Global Day of Climate Action. The students have by now been frequently joined and supported by adults, including teachers for future and scientists for future.
Another protest movement created around the same time as Fridays for Future is focusing on extinction and the global environmental damage wreaked by humans: Extinction Rebellion. Their concerns are the same, but they argue that it is necessary to go “beyond politics”. Established in the United Kingdom in May 2018, with about one hundred academics signing a call to action, Extinction Rebellion is a non-partisan, but not unpolitical, international movement that uses non-violent direct action to try to entice governments towards ecologically sensible politics. While the issues are global, the UK movement organisers demand that governments acknowledge the current climate and biodiversity crisis, act now to halt species extinction and climate change, and that the government make policies based on a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice, rather than based on interest lobbies and party politics. Their concept of a Citizen's Assembly may seem far out there, but is in their words the “fairest and most powerful way to cut through party politics”. It is also not completely unprecedented, as they cite examples of successful assemblies from a range of countries, including Ireland, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Poland.
In London, and globally, members of the movement also organise colourful protest marches to raise awareness on this global cause. Extinction Rebellion members will even go to the extent of allowing themselves to be arrested.
The colourful protests are of course eye-catching, but they are hopefully much more than that. These new protest movements are reminiscent of the civic protests of the 1960s in the United States, which did bring about a lot of change. Because the outcome of the current peaceful rebellions is of great concern to all of humanity, we have to do our very best to strengthen and increase such protests, so as not to let politicians off the hook anymore when it comes to action to protect our home, our planet earth.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.