With each passing Earth Day there’s a fresh sense of urgency: another brutal IPCC report, more stark warnings, more people taking to the streets in a battle against fossil fuels. We’ve never had less time to act, but we’ve also never had as many brilliant and insightful voices to galvanise and inspire us. This year, we invited a new generation of thinkers, activists and writers to share their thoughts to a question that feels both familiar and daunting: With so many things going wrong, what can we do?
It's a question taken from A Life on Our Planet, David Attenborough’s remarkable memoir-cum-manifesto, which takes the reader through nine decades of life spent looking closely at the earth – and mankind’s footsteps upon it. As these four authors – Claire Ratinon, Sam Lee, Ed Winters and Mya-Rose Craig – respond to Attenborough’s question, it feels as though a torch is being passed between the generations, of ideas, of expertise and, crucially, of hope.
We live in overwhelming times, with a seemingly endless flow of information and communication. The cacophony of rolling news, social media feeds and ceaseless debate and commentary may appear to be a manifestation of connection but, in reality, it often leaves us feeling weary and hopeless. Between reckoning with our collective history, trying to lessen our impact on the environment and our fellow humans in the present, and then worrying about what the future might hold, it’s no wonder we sometimes feel as though there’s nothing we can do about the things going wrong in the world.
A decade or so ago, I was taught about the notion of interdependence by a Buddhist teacher in New York City. It is a word that describes the truth of the many complex and divine ways in which we are connected to one another, to the natural world, and to all things. I leant on this understanding during a lonely time but it wasn’t until a few years later, once I’d turned my life towards the work of growing plants, that I came to truly comprehend its truthfulness and profundity.
It is a modest but powerful thing to enliven a piece of earth, a pot filled with compost or a window box bathed in sun with crops or foliage or flowers. Through the humble act of sowing a seed, nurturing seedlings, urging plants to take root and flowers to bloom, we can become a force that encourages the natural world to thrive. And when we practice this essential act of growing plants, it becomes more possible to cultivate gratitude for the many beings – human and more-than-human – who participate in our thriving, and thus see how we might participate in the thriving of other beings, too. Moving through a plant’s life journey and coming to understand what it takes for the growers and farmers, the pollinators and soil life to feed us offers a prism through which we might consider the many other systems that support us and how we – through the beliefs we hold, the choices we make, and the change we enact – can participate in moving towards a more hopeful future.
So when it all feels like too much, grow something. Slow down, take a breath, sow a seed. Participating in this gentle process has offered me such connection and meaning, and more insight into my role as steward of the earth than anything I’ve ever encountered on the internet. Every fiercely orange calendula or purple starburst of a flowering chive that you nurture is one more sacred thread woven into the interdependent tapestry that knits us together and upholds us all. It may feel like a drop in the ocean, but even these smallest of acts contribute to meaningful change when you understand the truth of our interdependence.
The climate crisis is a terrifying crisis, not just because of the destructive threat that it poses, but also because it reveals the shortsightedness of humanity and our inability to act beyond our own short-term interests.
As citizens of the world, it’s easy to listen to the stark and numerous warnings from the scientific community and then feel exasperated by the inaction of those in power. From our reliance on fossil fuels to the obscenely detrimental subsidisation of animal farming, it feels like our species couldn’t be doing a worse job of trying to prevent this crisis.
However, while we can look across the world and feel disempowered by our inability to change the many wrongdoings that currently exist, there is at least one choice that we can make daily that has the power to radically alter our world for the better and make a huge impact in averting the climate crisis: food.
There is an ever-growing understanding that our consumption of animal products has a huge environmental cost, but even as far back as 2006 we were being warned about the need to change our agricultural system, with the United Nations stating that:
The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.
Unfortunately, since 2006, the problem has only continued to worsen. As well as being the leading cause of rainforest deforestation and the single largest driver of habitat loss, animal agriculture is also one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses. In fact, a University of Oxford report stated that even if our use of fossil fuels came to an end immediately, the emissions produced by the agricultural sector alone would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius and would even make it difficult to not hit two degrees.
In other words, if we want to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis, we have no option but to change how we eat. But there’s good news, as switching to a plant-based diet could reduce agricultural emissions by as much as 73 per cent in high-income nations and could reduce global farmland by more than 75 per cent, which is an area of land equivalent in size to the whole of China, Australia, the US and the EU combined.
We could reforest and restore this land, providing us with opportunity to reverse the current demise of the planet’s biodiversity whilst harnessing the carbon capture potential of trees and vegetation. It’s been estimated that returning animal farms back to nature would allow us to sequester over eight billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, which is equal to about 15 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that a plant-based food system alone could reduce our emissions by around 30 per cent.
This doesn’t even factor in the environmental benefits that would also be found by no longer fishing, as well, where the fishing method of bottom trawling alone produces the same amount of emissions as the entire aviation industry.
Ultimately, this only scratches the surface of all the good that would be created from changing how we eat, but importantly, our food choices are one of the rare examples where we have the autonomy to radically change the world in such a profound and meaningful way.
I think one of the reasons life is so stressful for young people is that there are so many things going wrong with the world – in terms of the environment but also with war, famine, and beyond – that the world feels overwhelming. On my most recent nature camp, while I was doing a bird ring demonstration, a nine-year-old asked me why Russia had attacked Ukraine. It was something that clearly had been on her mind, causing her anxiety, but she felt able to ask me as a young person.
I have known lots of young environmental activists over the last ten years, and so many have burned out. As well as having their own focus, lots of organisations ask them for help, and the pressure can become too much. Katie Hodgetts has set up The Resilience Project to help support young activists after she became burnt out as a young climate activist. I think it is essential to look after your own mental health first, and say no to anything that isn’t within your core area. You can not resolve it all.
When I was 13 years old I realised that visible minority ethnic (VME) people were almost completely absent from the outdoors – especially the countryside. At that time, I didn’t really understand the reasons for this, but organised a nature camp to be part of the solution.
Reaching out, I came to realise that there was an enormously ingrained belief, on the part of VME teenagers, in the narrative that they were urbanites and not the type of people who should go out into nature. In the end I used my contacts who worked with VME communities to find five boys who could be persuaded to come out to the countryside and get them connected with nature. What I realised was that it wasn’t the fault of VME communities, but the structural racism that made them feel excluded from the outdoors.
When I wrote to the big conservation organisations, asking them what they were doing to connect with VME people, it became apparent that they were doing very little, which is why I came up with the nature camp. This was a conference with 50 people from the conservation sector and 50 people from 30 different VME communities. This investigated the reasons behind the lack of engagement, the barriers and how to overcome those barriers.
What I learnt from this process is that with difficult and complex issues, you may not know what the issues are, let alone the solution.
There are lots of reasons behind issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution and infringement on the human rights of local and indigenous peoples. We need to understand these complexities, how they interlink and not oversimplify them, as doing this can vilify certain groups. So for climate change, not telling people that they can only campaign if they never fly or are vegan.
It is important to break down the issues and work on one or two areas at a time, so you can make real change. Look after yourself and put your mental health first. Getting burnt out doesn’t help you or the planet.
This has been a winter of great discontent. An interconnected maelstrom of so many catastrophes; wars, storms, sickness, ecological breakdown… the list goes on, suggesting no signs of a letting off from the troubles of the world. This has been a test of our individual resilience and tenacity to cope in times marked by such wreckage.
How does one find emotional solace when confronted with such complex issues? Let’s take a few notes from nature; it usually provides an answer or two. This is the most profound time of year when against all odds (and the thermometer), life seems to resurrect itself, penetrating through hard soil, exploding twig ends into blossom and revealing a thrilling array of beings determined to be back in the picture and living their brightest lives.
What an utter inspiration to behold, and testament to the spirit of resilience the spring return is. However, it’s more than just a flower arrangement competition: this is an act of reciprocal honouring of the great bargain agreed upon to exist in your flowerhood or beedom. What goes on below and above ground is a lesson for us all regarding our own rootedness and awareness of all that has happened in this world the last few months.
The great message I receive from spring’s re-birthing is about being in your full awareness and in service to your community. No species acts in solitude. No reappearance is without its entourage of benefactors and patrons. Around the first days of April I wait in anticipation for the arrivals of our migratory birds, but most notably the Nightingale. I have long felt that once in residence amongst the blackthorn scrub and heartily blasting their courtship night song, nightingales act as ‘osmosis activators’. That is their very expressiveness draws the sap from root up every stem. The song acts as midwife, forceping out of pregnant, naked and leafless winter a canopy of foliage and its mighty array of associated lifeforms on which the birds will feed. The power of this song is fuelled by the fat of foreign lands, by way of a diet made of small invertebrates while wintering in the sub-Saharan riparian scrub. Charged up on this neighbouring continent biomass, they release this stored energy as musical gifts upon us come spring. Their mesmeric and legendary arias are remunerated by them sending, come August and September, in return a clutch of new birds born of English soil and fed on English spiders and mites. They can soon be heard back in their wintering grounds testing out and expressing their sub-song as part of this intercontinental song-transmission, an exchange program.
This feat reminds us to give our gifts of attentive wonder. Each bird’s return is an against-the-odds success, and as the national bird of Ukraine, we are reminded of all we share in this global neighbourhood. With an overwhelming number of reasons of why they shouldn’t make it back alive, their music is defiance personified, and a calling upon us all to sing through the dark times.
What did you think of this article? Email email@example.com and let us know.
Image: Rebecca Hendin for Penguin
Temperatures, sea levels and anxiety about the future of the planet are all on the rise. But how do you separate fact from fiction, and what can you really do to make a difference? Here are the books you need to read about tackling climate chang
A new series from Penguin Classics places 75 years of writing about the environment in the canon at a time when it couldn’t be more crucial. Here’s how it came to be.