Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

Why we Need to be More Than Armchair Environmentalists

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It is a terrible thing to admit, but I’m going to come clean: although I aspire to be “eco-friendly”, and “green”, I don’t think I’m doing enough about it. And I have a suspicion that I’m not the only one.

We are constantly told how important it is to reverse the tide towards climate change, to reduce our carbon footprint and to ensure we don’t ignore inconvenient truths. Aside from the climate change sceptics, everybody worthily agrees that it’s the right thing to do, but how many of us actually do anything about it?

According to Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group, who conducts annual surveys of consumer attitudes towards environmental issues, consumers like me are “armchair environmentalists”. We can see lots of things other people should do, but don’t want to do much ourselves, unless it’s easy and saves money.

More pertinently for those committed to the cause, people like me who exhibit good intent don’t actually know what the right things to do are, and have little real knowledge – just enough to blag our way through a party.

Please don’t demonise me: I do make small attempts such as using energy-efficient light bulbs, or reducing the amount of water I heat in the kettle to the amount I need. And I’m not alone in my little efforts. According to Current Cost, a UK company manufacturing real-time displays for monitoring domestic electricity usage: 67 per cent of people in the UK claim to always switch off lights when leaving a room, and 80 per cent always wait for a full load before switching on the dishwasher.

But, if I dare to admit it, my efforts are less inspired by climate change, and more by the simple straightforward idea of resource efficiency. It seems sensible to avoid wasting electricity by switching off lights, fully loading dishwashers or combining road trips to reduce overall mileage.

I am also the last of a generation who grew up with the ethos of re-use and repair rather than today’s practice of dispose-and-repurchase. But I’ve been trained out of reuse and repair by the fact that it is often cheaper and much less effort to buy new, along with the fact that having more and newer stuff keeps me “on trend”. Extra disposable income and the need to show off status along with shops bursting with new products are particular culprits of this change in lifestyle.

I think this is especially sad in places such as the Gulf where until 50 years ago people were exceptionally adept at living in harmony with their environment and were efficient in their use of resources. That sensitivity to surroundings has been lost. It’s understandable that with greater wealth people want to escape from their hard, austere life.

But how far in the opposite direction has the pendulum swung? Too far, it seems. In October, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that the UAE had the world’s highest per-capita environmental footprint for the third year in a row. Perhaps the environmental wisdom that still resides with elders needs to be urgently harnessed before it is gone forever.

I wonder also if the financial crisis will actually help the climate crisis. It might give us a greater focus on resource efficiency – to save money and repair goods rather than replace them with newer more expensive ones. And in doing so it might catapult us into doing all the right things to maintain better stewardship of our planet. These may not be the reasons climate change activists want to motivate us, but if it achieves the same goals, does it really matter?

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