Food for thought and hope for the future
Seven months ago, I became a mother. Over the months since then I have emerged from the early days of baby chaos with a rejuvenated zeal for conservation, watching my daughter grow and start to engage with her surroundings. She already takes enormous pleasure in our small daily outdoor adventures, usually just walking the dog in the local nature reserve. That sense of wonder reinforces the inherent value of trees and grass and birds vividly to me. Our little excursions are what keep us in touch with the species we share these spaces with.
As a conservationist, becoming a parent can be fraught with guilt (having a dog is bad enough). There are many who advocate choosing to be childless to curb population increase and slow our overconsumption of resources, which is driving species decline, pollution and climate change. Even national treasure David Attenborough has long reported the burgeoning population as the elephant in the room. Although internationally fertility is decreasing, so is mortality. Projected estimates for our global population in 2100 are around 11.2 billion, which is bound to put a strain on planetary boundaries.
Another way to look at this issue is to focus on consumption. Per capita average resource consumption is highly variable across the globe. Those of us living in the affluent west for example, who on average produce relatively few offspring, consume far more resources per capita than some other parts of the world where larger families are more common. Whilst that doesn’t detract from the fact that more people means more resource use, focusing on our most impactful lifestyle choices is another approach to reducing their negative effects.
Several recent studies have highlighted the impact that changing our diets alone could have on our ecological footprint. A report produced by the Oxford Martin School in 2016 for example calculated that cutting meat from our diets could reduce food-related emissions by 63% as well as benefitting our health. Going one step further and becoming vegan could increase that to 70%.
Additionally, other elements of our consumption patterns, such as fashion, are now seeing greater mainstream media coverage as people appear to engage more with the links between what we buy and what is happening to the environment globally. The BBC recently aired a hard hitting documentary; “Fashions Dirty Secrets” highlighting the impacts of fast fashion and associated pesticide and water use on habitats and the people producing them.
It seems that these studies and documentaries which connect our behaviour directly to environmental benefits may gradually empower people to take action. The results of a study carried out by Waitrose last week revealed that up to a third of UK supermarket shoppers have deliberately reduced their meat consumption and 1 in 8 were either vegetarian or vegan. Motivations ranged from animal welfare to personal health to environmental concerns. According to the Vegan Society the number of people who have moved to an entirely vegan diet has increased 400% since 2014 from 150,000 to 600,000 this year although another survey carried out by comparethemarket.com put this at a whopping 3.5 million, 7% of the UK population. I take hope from signs that people are thinking more about what they consume, and are changing behaviours in such a way that we might achieve the cultural shift needed to avoid total annihilation of the planet.
For my small part I will strive to bring up a daughter who is informed about the impact our lifestyle choices are having; who recognises that in order for us to survive as a species and protect the other species we live alongside, we must radically change how we interact with the natural world and its resources. We need the next generation to consider themselves the custodians of the Earth, who see the interconnectedness of our daily lifestyle choices and the natural world beyond, and our reliance on it for survival.
For my daughter, walking through the autumn leaves in the local park is dazzlingly exciting. I hope to use some of that newfound wonder to sustain a hopeful outlook on the future.