It’s been nearly two years since I arrived in Philippines for the first time. Lost, confused and naively convinced to spend $40 on a taxi when there were free shuttle buses right behind me. After a life changing two months I had always hoped I’d be back. And here I am - with new goals, new skills to learn and a little bit more life experience behind me.
When I arrived in the Philippines in summer 2017, I was embarrassingly unaware of the global plastic pollution issue. With such a heavy presence in mainstream media today, it’s hard to imagine a time when plastic wasn’t so wildly discussed. But it’s true - momentum for the movement has blown up in the space of 18 months. It has resulted in global awareness, calls to action and real behaviour change. Collins English Dictionary named "single-use" their word of the year in 2018, citing a four-fold increase in usage since 2013. The UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Taiwan have joined a list of countries that are banning products containing micro-beads. The European Parliament passed a full ban on single-use plastics, estimated to make up over 70% of marine litter, which will come into effect in 2021. It’s been truly inspiring to see our progress as a society in recognising our throw away culture and taking tangible steps to change it.
We have seen a major attitude shift towards plastics and personal responsibility in the fight against climate change. However with increased awareness, has come increased controversy. Many argue, “There are bigger problems than plastic straws”. It’s easy to lose the drive for individual action when reports such as the Carbon Majors state that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions. Many corporations have been accused of “greenwashing” their policies and latching on to reducing plastic consumption while ignoring their more environmentally damaging policies. While I agree, we must keep our eyes on major issues like climate change, overfishing and habitat loss to effect meaningful change; I can’t help but feel frustrated by the “my environmentalism is better than your environmentalism” attitude. Why can’t it be possible for individuals to tackle plastic pollution and local threats while also advocating for global policy change and reduced carbon emissions? Or perhaps more importantly, why can’t we harvest the energy and passion from individual action to feed into the broader societal change necessary to address climate change?
Working in conservation can often lead to some tunnel vision in terms of how you perceive public awareness. When the environment is part of your job description, it’s easy to convince yourself that climate change is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. This unfortunately, is not the case. The fight against plastic has brought environmental concern into mainstream conversation more than anything I’ve seen in recent years. So why villainize a movement that has acted as a gateway drug to environmentalism for so many previously unengaged audiences? The conservation industry is no stranger to piggybacking wide reaching goals onto trendy topics. Many of the most successful conservation strategies use “charismatic megafauna” as a tool to maximize impact. We are called to “save the tigers” when what we are really contributing to is the conservation of entire ecosystems, which benefit a magnitude of plants, animals and the communities that rely on them. These campaigns don’t diminish the importance of the tiger, but the ecosystems they live in don’t suffer as a result.
We have reached a critical cross roads in terms of environmental action. The momentum at which we are tackling climate change is beginning to change. Now is not the time to blame shift to governments or corporations. What would have happened if ten months ago Greta Thunburg was told that skipping school was an inadequate way to tackle climate change? If she had listened would #FridaysforFuture have grown into the largest global environmental protest in history? It’s time to recognize that we all have a role to play in climate action. Let’s not forget that behind every large institutional change are the individuals, the communities, the NGOs and hey, maybe even the angry Twitter user calling their government out on their environmental policies.
As a wise inspirational screensaver once told me: