10 things I’ve learned from working in the environmental movement
It’s been nearly three years since I first turned up at Greenpeace International as a bright-eyed young intern, intent on saving the world one tweet at a time. I’ve learned some things since then.
- Climate change is complicated. Really complicated. It’s going to affect nearly every aspect of our lives on this planet. There isn’t one easy cure-all solution that will fix everything. But luckily there are a lot of brilliant people working on it.
- It is really hard to change people’s minds. Even when you have 97% of scientists on your side. People don’t like being told that they’re part of an enormous problem that’s very hard to solve. They like it even less when they realise that a serious upheaval is going to be needed to make it better.
- Activism comes in many different forms. Some activists set up camps in threatened forests and put their bodies on their line for the cause. Some activists sit comfortably behind their computers and spread the word. Both are necessary.
- All too often, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Environmentalists can tend to get bogged down in details — the minutiae of data and arbitrary figures that don’t mean much to anyone else. It’s easy to end up staying within our cosy echo-chamber, discussing numbers without thinking about how this impacts real people.
- People love to hate environmentalists. When you picture a smelly hemp-sandal-wearing hippy telling you to recycle to save the polar bears, it makes you cringe. It’s easy to see us as a self-righteous lot, high on our own sanctimoniousness — we can be a bit annoying. People seize on every opportunity to point out meaningless hypocrisies just to knock us off our high-horse.
- A ‘sustainable lifestyle’ can only get you so far. Real change comes from the top. Reducing the amount of plastic you use is all well and good, but we need to stop fossil fuels from being dug up in the first place. Making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we need it to. It just makes us feel better about ourselves.
- There’s no such thing as ethical capitalism. Brands will jump on the greenwashing wagon with wild abandon, just to increase their profits. Sure, there are some social enterprises that are doing incredible things, but no matter what you buy, you’re still, in some way, contributing to the same exploitative system.
- This isn’t about saving the planet, it’s about saving us. It’s not about fluffy animals either (although they’re all anyone seems to care about). The planet will survive this, but millions of humans won’t. The privileged few might weather the storm — it’s the poorest who will suffer the most.
- We’re too late. We’re already locked into a certain degree of warming. The planet has lost 50% of its wildlife. The Arctic is melting faster than ever. Rainforests are disappearing. We fucked it. Mitigation is all we can realistically do now. And we can make sure that those who are going to be affected the worst have sufficient provision to adapt.
- We need systematic change to avoid disaster. This isn’t going to be fixed by recycling and electric cars (although that’s better than nothing). We need to fundamentally change the way our society works. If that sounds too idealistic, then fine. But it’s what we need to stop this from destroying us. And it’s what we’re going to keep fighting for.