Earth Day: why it needs to be every day - RSA

Earth Day: why it needs to be every day

Comment

  • Environment

Earth Day 2024 focuses on plastic pollution. It’s a massive problem that must be addressed, but we need to go beyond one-day initiatives to instil a sense of urgency in responding to all the issues we face.

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Earth Day is being held on 22 April for the 54th time since it was inaugurated in 1970 in America. It followed the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. The event has become a global one since 1990 and this year around 100 events are logged as happening in the UK, many of them in schools. Social media suggests that many more individuals will be taking action in response to this year’s theme: Planet vs Plastics.

No-one should decry any attempt to engage the public in understanding and reacting to the appalling list of threats to our planet and its ecosystems. Nor should we dismiss the efforts people make to reduce their use of plastic or their energy use. But does a dedicated day of activity and the consolidated efforts of a large number of individuals amount to an effective response to the challenges we face? 

Clearly not. As a survivor of a number of ‘environmental’ campaigns, I don’t underestimate how hard it is to produce large-scale behaviour change – ask the Keep Britain Tidy campaign how they are getting on after 80 years. I have come to the conclusion that the heavy lifting has to be done by government, by regulation, taxation, market shaping and choice editing.

However, and especially in an election year, governments do not have carte blanche. We have seen governments shy away from difficult policy choices to avoid challenging voters or to seek electoral advantage against opponents. 

Does a dedicated day of activity and the consolidated efforts of a large number of individuals amount to an effective response to the challenges we face?

Fellowship factor

The RSA Fellowship, and especially the Sustainability Network, has an important opportunity in building a broader understanding of the challenges we face and the need for the actions that government is, or should be, taking. The challenge is to see how we can go beyond public concern about specific issues, like disposable coffee cups, to build a broader understanding of how these issues join together, impact whole ecosystems and significantly affect lifestyle choices.

Fellows across the UK, and more broadly, are already involved. Many members of the network are actively involved professionally as consultants or are employed in ESG roles. In Lincolnshire excellent work on the UN Sustainable Development Goals has been done. Warwickshire has numerous local and successful projects underway led by Fellows. The Oceania Network has worked extensively with the Sustainability Network to provide, and make widely available, thinking that supports a broader theoretical and practical understanding for our work, for example, in the area of rights of nature.

Sustainability Network

Circle

Fellows can join the conversation around sustainability and regeneration on our online community platform. Collaborate on sustainable development, the circular economy, combatting short-termism and regenerative futures.

Most recently we have looked at regenerative thinking, which stresses the importance of understanding specific issues in the context of whole systems and, as part of the Fellows Festival, the challenging but powerful idea that progress could be made through creating legal rights for nature.

The challenge for the Fellowship is how can we develop and share our own understanding of what lies ahead, and can we offer insight and leadership to instil a sense of urgency – not panic – in the public that politicians can’t ignore?

Washington warning

Thirty years ago I accompanied a senior British minister to Washington where we met the US Secretary for Energy. He greeted us with, “Do you believe this global warming stuff?” and when told that we did, asked, “So what do you think will happen?” The response was, “We will all fry”, with the inference that we would not have the political or institutional infrastructure to make the necessary changes.

Since then we have made some progress. We have UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity, a growing and compelling science base and some sort of consensus on what should be done. However, we have competition for public and political engagement with issues that appear more pressing: at least two wars, inflation, the state of the NHS and the demographic challenge of an ageing population and a falling workforce. Governments and the public in this context see sustainability issues as for the longer term, ignoring the fact that by the time we get to them, we will likely be too late.

So on Earth Day 2024, the challenge for the Fellowship is how can we develop and share our understanding of what lies ahead, and can offer insight and leadership to instil a sense of urgency – not panic – in the public that politicians can’t ignore but can draw on to adopt the changes we need? By all means, take action on plastic today, but recognise that this can’t be a one-day event.

Phillip Ward is the RSA’s Sustainability Network Lead.

RSA Fellowship

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