The pandemic has made us all environmentalists – now it’s the turn of leaders to act

The New Ism’s co-founders are from different generations – Mel Young is a Baby Boomer, and Alex Matthews is a Millennial. In their weekly conversation blogs – and indeed in all the work they do – they draw on their differing experiences to ask questions and reach conclusions that are pan-generational.

Alex Matthews: One of the good things to emerge from the pandemic has been a greater appreciation for the more important things in life: time with family, enjoying hobbies and, importantly, nature and the world around us. With so many people working from home and isolated from their families and friends, the natural world has been a solace. Whatever horrors are going on around us, the seasons still change and nature carries on regardless, and many have found comfort in that. IT has also spurred many of us to think more carefully about our impact on the environment, both individually and collectively. The question is, how do we take that new awareness with us into the ‘new normal’ and indeed The New Ism?

Mel Young: It is certainly true that people are much more aware of the nature around them: we have taken to walking, running and cycling in parks and really appreciating that open space. I live near a park and it is mobbed from early morning to late evening which is fabulous to see. People I know talk about how they previously walked past nature, but now they see it and don’t want to lose sight of it ever again. To answer your question, we need to marry these micro-moments with the macro policies that governments and others are announcing. We all need to do our part as individuals within an overall policy shift built to protect the planet, and therefore ourselves. 

AM: Yes, COP26 – the meeting of global leaders to discuss climate change – is happening in Glasgow later this year, and it seems serendipitous that it is happening in a year in which so many people have a new-found or rediscovered appreciation for the planet – and a desire to help look after it. The leaders attending the conference need to find ways to mobilise normal people, alongside incentivising national governments to implement large-scale change. The two are equally important; one without the other will not create the transformation needed to save the planet. But there seems to be a disconnect, in this country certainly and in many others – there is desire and often action at the individual level, but our leaders don’t seem to be connecting the dots and initiating projects that could drive the change that is needed.

MY: The worry is that the political leaders are simply paying lip service to what is potentially a massive challenge. Lots of environmental organisations are pointing out statistics that show that climate change is accelerating and that our current efforts are simply not enough and certainly not fast enough. I think you can praise governments for their efforts in protecting the population from the current pandemic. Ok, they could have done things better but they have prioritised the protection of the people. There needs to be the same urgency with climate change. It needs to be a top priority and underpin our thinking on everything, from going for a walk in the park right through to macroeconomic decisions around appropriate investment and new laws.

AM: You’re absolutely right. When a significant decision is made – building a new railway line, for example – the implications for both people and planet need to be at the forefront. Does it actively benefit the environment? What measures need to be taken to ensure that it not only doesn’t do any damage, but actively prevents climate change? We’re used to doing that about people – no one would ever make a big decision without considering the impact on people – and we urgently need to do that for the planet too. As you say, time is running out – I think scientists are saying that the 2020s are the last decade where we can still act to reverse climate change.

I can’t really work out why leaders are being so slow to act on environmental issues when they have proven they can act quickly and decisively, as is the case for the pandemic. Is it powerful lobbying from industries such as energy and aviation? Or is it because the effects of any action are generally only felt long after that government is no longer in power? What can be done to mitigate those effects?

MY: Well, that’s a big question! It is the right question and one which has to be answered. I think we need to ask fundamental questions about the way we live and governments need to provide a lead. Energy consumption is a case in point but the answer is straightforward: stop using fossil fuels – we should all do that and governments and others should bring in legislation and incentives. But there are more challenging areas, like tourism, for example. A friend of mine thinks that tourism is the big ‘baddie’ – hollowing out cities, increasing aviation, creating unskilled low paid jobs and so on. He thinks we should stop travelling in order to save the planet – not just from the fuel we consume, but because of how the current economic impact of tourism actually aggravates the environment. I don’t know if he is right, but it is a good question: if we want to create change, then we are going to have to change our behaviour. Tourism might be an area where the debate needs to happen because it shines a light on some central challenges. 

AM: That takes us back to our blog from last week about what tourism should and could look like in the future. Perhaps the focus will be on domestic tourism, and getting our ‘cultural understanding’ from online experiences. You’re right that tourism is a good area to focus on as it is where big business and corporate pressure meets human weaknesses – we all love a good beach holiday and going abroad on a cheap flight has become a normal part of life. Government, corporate and individual habits and behaviour all need to change.

When the pandemic is under control, I think governments and international organisations like the EU and the UN need to harness the appetite to care for the environment and prevent climate change – and that needs to happen before that appetite dissipates as life goes back to normal and we become distracted by the busy-ness of everyday life. Hopefully, the leaders at COP 26 will team that desire with the energy they all applied to the Covid-19 crisis, because that would be really powerful.

MY: We all – individuals, governments, corporations, everyone – need to reassess how we live. We have to have a new mindset. We can’t go on living the way we live or we will destroy the planet. We have to work out what change looks like, and then put it into action. I think how we consume is key to that – how we consume our holidays, our daily purchases, our travel and so on. That’s key and at The New Ism we will be seeking positive, constructive solutions to these challenges and more. 

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