Your Planet: Needs you

To survive, we need action from individuals and governments, argues the Independent's green columnist, Julia Stephenson

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The environmental problems facing us seem so huge that it's tempting to bury our heads under the duvet and try to forget about them. Surely there's no point in well-meaning individuals lagging their lofts and recycling bottles when the situation is so dire?

At the same time, paradoxically, it is also hard to feel a real sense of urgency about the problem when, in the UK at least, we have little first-hand experience of the devastating results of environmental destruction. We are comparatively protected from the natural disasters attributed to global warming elsewhere, and this can make it hard to make a direct connection between our actions and their effects.

We would probably make more of a connection if we lived on Tuvalu, the islands that environmentalists often cite to prove the existence of global warming. The Tuvalu islands are flooding owing to rising sea levels, and the islanders are now refugees fleeing to New Zealand (Australia refused to take them). This is all dreadful, most of us would agree; but it is still hard to link something going on in a tiny island we've barely heard of, thousands of miles away, with our personal activities in the UK.

Yet the people of Tuvalu have had no choice but to face up to the fact that what people do - as individuals and collectively - has an effect on the environment. Those who insist there is no point in trying to live sustainably would surely change their minds if they could see the rising sea levels outside their own front doors.

In the UK, the consequences of our careless living are carefully concealed from view. Most of us are fortunate enough not to live near toxic rubbish landfills - the direct result of excess packaging and of the endless plastic bags that we casually discard after one use. We can choose not to make the connection between the cheap cellophane packet of bacon and the thousands of sows crammed into tiny concrete crates, or between our teak garden chairs and the vast tracts of razed Amazonian rain forest.

We are disconnected from the effects of these actions. In other cases, however, the results of what we do are clearly visible, and in those cases our social conscience generally kicks in. Most of us don't choose to chuck our rubbish on to the street, for example, as if we did we would see the result in litter and vermin. If we thought for a moment about the true state of the global environmental crisis, though, we would see how irrational it is to show any less concern for our distant environments that we do for our own homes and streets.

The Buddhist philosopher, Dr Ikeda writes: "each individual is concerned about the state of the air in their immediate vicinity. The problem is for each individual to be equally as concerned about pollution of the air everywhere. After all, there is no division between us and our environment. By polluting one we destroy the other."

Today, it is growing harder to bury our heads in the sand. The consequences of how we live are becoming increasingly visible. Natural disasters which used to appear only in far-flung places are inching closer - witness the unprecedented heat waves and floods of the past two years in Europe; the imminent threat of bird flu; deteriorating air quality resulting in the huge increase in asthma; declining fish stocks; and the high incidence of cancer clusters around nuclear power stations. As the effects of our wasteful lifestyles are drummed into us in daily news bulletins, the truth is beginning to sink in: our battery chickens are finally coming home to roost, with devastating consequences.

It's easy to feel powerless - but, as Edmund Burke put it, "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little." When we take action we become engaged with the problem and energised when we seek solutions. We have created these problems and equally we have the ingenuity to solve them - once we face up to them. Geothermal bore holes that harness the warmth of the earth to provide us with power, bugs that gobble up plastic so it doesn't pollute landfill and solar powered cargo ships are just some of the exciting new technologies that have been developed to help us deal with environmental problems.

"Each time a man stands up for an idea," said Bobby Kennedy, "he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." It is worth doing your bit to make a difference. Small actions have huge effects : if most people in the UK turned off their standby appliances at night we could close three nuclear power stations.

More importantly, nations don't change until individuals change. Great movements have all started with one concerned individual. Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Pankhurst - all dared stand up for the truth and harnessed a universal awareness as they did so. Similarly, the environmental movement began with a few passionate campaigners and has snowballed, slowly but inexorably, into a worldwide movement. In between, thousands upon thousands of individuals have taken their own private decisions to face up to their environmental responsibilities. For the movement to succeed, though, thousands more must do the same.

Even if the UK population's private habits account for only a tiny percentage of the problem, we cannot insist that China and India reduce their carbon emissions unless we lead the way ourselves. And surely it's better to ease ourselves into a sustainable lifestyle now than to wait for the government to enforce carbon rationing, which looks increasingly likely?

There are also personal advantages to living a greener life. By eating seasonally and organically, avoiding stress-inducing airports, using less power - for example drying clothes outside in the sun - I have saved money and have become healthier and happier.

Although I pretend to hardcore green pals that I sold my car to cut down carbon emissions, the main reason was to avoid the ghastly stresses and expense of car ownership, and to get fitter. While I'm thrilled to reduce my carbon emissions, I am just as thrilled to have lost 4lbs.

The desire for pure air, soil and water transcends class, race, and nationality. The movement to safeguard these basic human rights offers an unprecedented opportunity to unite a divided world with a common goal. I can't think of a more exciting way to live than by joining it.

After all, the air, the earth, oceans and land are not ours to spoil but are merely held in trust for our children. Teddy Roosevelt said: "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, not impaired, in value."

For that to happen, you and I must behave well too.

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