Burying Our Heads in the Sand?

A person working in any capacity to protect the environment quickly becomes, for better or worse, a spokesperson for the ‘green movement’ more generally. And, rightly, must be prepared to submit to scrutiny regarding their own lifestyles – not excluding the self-auditing that accompanies a bewildering number of everyday decisions.

The temptation to lecture people about their polluting habits or to correct misapprehensions they might voice about topics such as recycling, GMOs, renewable energy etc. can be hard to resist. But simply attacking individuals rather than building consensus towards meaningful, positive change is unlikely to result in the desired outcomes. Defensive people have a habit of acquiring selective deafness and just entrenching themselves further in their own little foxholes…

I’m often guilty myself of ‘Why don’t they just…?’ thinking too, when it comes to some of the seemingly intractable issues confronting our planet. Visiting SE Asia recently (yes, full disclosure, I didn’t get there on foot) I watched as a man – presumably hired by the hotel where I was staying – painstakingly swept up all the plastic bottles and other such debris that was dumped on the beach by the high tide every morning, then dug holes right there in the sand in which to bury this sizeable accumulation of non-biodegradable rubbish. His daily activities represented, in microcosm, much of the world’s attitude towards this particular problem: dump our trash out of sight and leave the consequences for another day.

Workers remove plastic waste from Kuta Beach, Bali in January 2021. The 30 tonnes of trash collected was later transported to a landfill site. Photograph from the CNN Travel website.

Yet in consuming foodstuffs portioned into tiny, single-use plastic sachets and polystyrene clamshells, and buying bottled water – all in the name of hygiene – I was, inevitably, contributing to the environmental degradation of an island with very limited capacity to deal with refuse management. What is the answer when we are confronted with dilemmas such as these?

It can be draining (and frankly downright unfeasible) to weigh the merits of each alternative over the many others available when it comes to trying to live more ethically, especially as companies get more clued up about how to deploy greenwashing as a marketing tactic. We eventually become jaded and view with scepticism the euphemisms and images wielded by advertisers we suspect are only paying lip service to environmentalism (see, for example: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220614-synthetic-or-natural-which-is-best-for-climate-and-health). This is especially true when regulatory bodies are still playing catch-up with respect to how vague claims to ‘holistic’, ‘wellness’ or ‘earth-friendly’ products can be evaluated against empirical (sometimes contested) research, and codified.

Do individuals (especially travellers hoping to have a relaxing holiday after the prolonged limbo necessitated by Covid-19) have the finances, time or inclination to always research and settle on the most eco-friendly option out of many – from choosing a reef-safe sunscreen to hiring an e-scooter instead of a conventional motorbike? And what about the trade-off for locals who must find a way to offer their goods and services at competitive prices – which often means eschewing those that are greener but much more costly?

I’ve been online now drafting this for an hour or so – ample time to make my own regrettable contribution to climate change (the electricity-hungry processes driven by social media and other internet-enabled communication mean that globally, netizens are responsible for a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry). Does this make me a hypocrite? That would be for others to judge I suppose, but my own philosophy is that while it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to work together towards reaching binding agreements in time to pull us all back from the brink of climate catastrophe and to deploy their budgets in support of research and innovation rather than business-as-usual, we each have a part to play, in whatever way is realistic for us at the time, and using our skills and talents to the best of our ability.

When I used to write opinion pieces for The Namibian newspaper, my unofficial tagline was: ‘If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.’ Rather blunt, perhaps, but it did encapsulate how I believe that it’s not enough to gripe and throw a few dollars at an issue in order to assuage your guilt. Effective advocacy doesn’t have to be shouty and performative, either (in fact it’s my view that a good way to generate unhelpful pushback over literally any debate is to be intolerant of people who need some convincing to be swayed).

In essence, every gesture we make towards greener living – be it ever so seemingly insignificant – leads us away from the worst-case scenarios we can hardly bear to contemplate. As does every comment we drop into our supermarket’s suggestion box, every lift we decide to share with another car owner, and every written response we demand of our elected officials.

Organisations such as Greenpeace UK have been pushing for a ban on plastic food and beverage packaging and containers for years. While retailers used to insist that their customers preferred their fresh produce wrapped, public opinion and consumer behaviour are forcing them to switch back to loose fruit and vegetables, just as some governments have also been prompted to introduce bans on packaging such as this. Photo: © Angela Glienicke / Greenpeace

If we want to contribute towards a sustainable future, our own efforts need to be sustainable too. Not one-off, ‘look at me’ gestures filmed and posted ‘for the likes’ but small daily acts, often undertaken in private, and perhaps involving even some element of sacrifice or expense (which most of us can ill afford these days). What is unconscionable is sitting back and thinking that as individuals we have no power to turn the tide.