I have been obsessed with this question for the last 9 years, ever since I had my environmental epiphany in a small cottage in Sligo in 2004. It was the motivation behind my ocean ocean rowing voyages – the idea was that I could reach new audiences by using adventure as my medium, rather than more conventional methods of environmental outreach. I did my best to reach outside the choir, using my blogs, videos, presentations and books to raise environmental awareness.
To an extent I believe it worked, although the frustrating thing with “raising awareness” is that it is nigh on impossible to quantify, and is mostly judged on anecdotal evidence. But even if I couldn’t be sure that my messages were always hitting their mark, at least I had a sense of progress as my oarstroke count mounted up, as did the miles passing beneath my keel, and the number of oceans crossed. It may not have been the right metric, but it was a metric.
Ever since I hung up my oars in October 2011 (via a brief almost-lured-out-of-retirement episode in 2012), I have returned time and again to the question of “what next?”. As the scale and urgency of our environmental challenges becomes every greater, at times I have almost panicked about my inaction. Obsessing about problems is no substitute for resolving them.
Two tentative theories have emerged from all this obsessive thinking.
1. Governments are not looking after our long-term interests. They mostly just want to get re-elected. Big Business is not looking after our long-term interests. They mostly just want to keep their shareholders and chief execs happy and rich and complacent. (Annie Leonard describes this brilliantly in her 20-minute video, The Story of Stuff.)
2. Most people aren’t listening. This is not their fault. We live in a crazily hectic world, where the average American is bombarded by as many as 5,000 advertising messages every day, spends 5 hours a day watching TV, let’s not even start on social media, and has on average only 16 paid days of vacation per year. At one time it was thought that technology would deliver us additional leisure time in which to ponder the big questions of life, but instead our modern lifestyle has created new diversions, chewing up our time and distracting us from what really matters. When a person’s waking hours are already 100% full, they don’t have time or headspace to ponder urgent messages about the long-term future of humanity.
“We get the government we deserve”, said Alexis de Tocqueville. So if we’re not thinking long-term, why should our governments? It’s not going to win them any votes – probably the opposite.
Maybe we also get the corporations we deserve. At a high-level meeting about the crisis of childhood obesity, the head of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, bluntly said, “Don’t talk to me about nutrition”. If people want to eat fat-laden, salt-laden, sugar-laden foods (an unfortunate genetic hangover from long-forgotten times when food was scarce), then that is what Big Food would continue to provide.
So if governments won’t take a lead, and corporations won’t take a lead, that leaves us. You, me, your neighbours, your colleagues, your friends. We can’t look outside ourselves for the leader. We have to BE the leader.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
[Featured image: me marching with 350.org in Copenhagen, 2009]