How 2018 turned environmentalism from a radical niche into a mainstream trend

From Donald Trump to David Attenborough, this year politics, pop culture, lifestyle trends and science intersected to completely change the public’s attitude towards sustainability

Sirena Bergman
Saturday 29 December 2018 16:12 GMT
Blue Planet shows mourning whales whose newborn may have been killed by plastic

It was not long ago that environmentalism was perceived as radical. Climate change may have been seen as a real issue, but most people would stop at putting a recycling bin in their kitchen, assuming – out of inertia or blind optimism – that governments would take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of our planet. Those who spoke out about the urgent issues facing humanity, about the imminent environmental catastrophe we’re facing, were met with dismissive eye rolls. But it seems that over the course of this year, those perceptions have shifted.

In September, I wrote an article for The Independent entitled “Everything you’ve been told about plastic is wrong – the answer isn’t recycling”, in which I argued that we need to push for real legislation around single-use plastics. When it was published I braced myself for the tweets telling me how focusing on this issue was pointless and irrelevant. I expected the comments to bemoan the self-righteous preaching of tree huggers, and indulge in pointless whataboutery to detract from the issue at hand. But they never came. The article became one of the most read Voices pieces of the year, and I received more positive engagement from it than for anything else I’ve ever written.

At the time, I was baffled, but looking back on 2018 now, I can see exactly why.

Perversely, I feel some credit should be given to Donald Trump. His withdrawal from the Paris Accord in 2017 seemed to give the agreement more publicity, coverage and airtime than it ever received by the public when it was signed the previous year. Trump’s outrageous decisions are a magnet for the mainstream media he so abhors, and seem to provoke outrage even in those who may previously have given little thought to what a president was focused on.

The left became united in its disdain for his assaults on environmental policy, and conversations around the issue started to become normalised among liberal circles. This happened not just in America but also in the UK, which has spent the last two years gripped by Trump’s every move, perhaps as an outlet to make the shambolic Brexit disaster we’re dealing with domestically seem a little less like self-imposed lunacy. After all, we may be on the brink of the worst political catastrophe in recent history, but at least our head of state isn’t a reality TV star who tweets like a maniacal buffoon and seems to take personal pleasure in speeding up the demise of the planet in the name of nationalist capitalism. The eye rolls turned to sombre agreement when discussing environmental action as no one wanted to risk sounding like Trump.

Meanwhile, at the tail end of 2017, one of Britain’s most beloved figures, David Attenborough, released Blue Planet II, a documentary series looking at the impact pollution is having on our marine life. It was the most watched TV show of the year, with 14.1 million people tuning in. The response was immediate and ubiquitous. As the final episode aired on the first day of 2018, social media was ablaze with viewers outraged by what they’d seen, and discussion around the impact our environmental choices are having on our natural resources became commonplace. The vastly increased awareness of plastic pollution has been dubbed the “Blue Planet effect”, and the show’s popularity has only increased, even spawning live events.

Online, newly inspired environmentalists dug out a video of a turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostril, which went viral and generated a whole other discussion around single-use plastics. Shockingly, the mainstream was pushing for a complete ban – or at least some form of taxation – on straws and other items, while the radical view became to argue against it, with disability campaigners at the forefront of the counterargument, making the point that these types of environmentally problematic products are actually crucial to the lives of differently abled people. We live in a politically adversarial society, so passionate disagreement on the issues is to be expected, but for the first time we saw environmental activism become so mainstream it was considered less progressive than the alternative, which looked at the broader potential benefits of the newly maligned single-use plastic.

In the run-up to Christmas, every gift guide out there talked about reusable water bottles and coffee cups, ethically manufactured items and even sustainable substitutes to wrapping paper. Alternatives to plastic have created a lucrative industry capitalising on millennials’ conscious spending habits, and spearheaded a trend that shows no sign of abating as more shoppers move away from packaging in favour of reusables, seeking out shops that sell unbranded products in bulk.

Our attitude towards the fashion industry has also seen a radical shift in the past year. In 2015 the independent film The True Cost, which explored the environmental and humanitarian impact of fast fashion opened the eyes of many, but its reach could not compete with Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, aired by BBC3 this year. Millions of people who would never have sought out such content were exposed to some uncomfortable truths. The episode became the most watched documentary on iPlayer and for the first time fast fashion started to seem less like an exciting – if thoughtless – way to spend money and more like a cruel capitalist scheme, irresponsibly marketing to young people and masking the reality of its detrimental impact on the planet.

The episode was first broadcast on 8 October, on the same day that the UN published a landmark report showing that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost half by 2030 to avert global environmental catastrophe. Later that month, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced his Autumn Budget, which included a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled material. Politics, pop culture, lifestyle trends and science intersected to completely change the way we think about environmentalism.

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Suddenly, influencers who earn their living through convincing their followers to buy the products they link to were talking about eschewing the high street in favour of ethical clothing. Niomi Smart, a YouTuber with 1.6 million subscribers, even launched a clothes swap event aimed at encouraging people to repurpose their garments and choose second hand where possible. A few years ago, when YouTube was constantly flooded with high street hauls, sponsored posts and endless affiliated links, this would have been unimaginable beyond the niche environmental content creators.

It’s easy to dismiss public awareness as positive but irrelevant. Even if the vast majority of us in this country committed to radically changing our lifestyle to minimise our environmental impact, it would still be but a drop in the (fast rising) ocean compared to the effects of the fossil fuels burned for energy and gas, and in the manufacturing of everyday products such as electronic devices and even food.

However, changing the perception of environmentalism from radical to trendy has a bigger impact that it may seem. We have tools at our disposal to address the effects of climate change, but governments need to act. Proper regulation and legislation around carbon emissions and responsible manufacturing, along with subsidies for renewable energy, could drastically change the bleak outlook we’re facing today. But until environmental policy becomes politically valuable this will not happen.

We need to show the people vying for power that the best way to get elected is to focus on this issue. This year has seen environmentalism soar into the mainstream and the public is using its spending power to show it cares. If we start using our mass voting power too, real change could be on its way in 2019.

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