Human society has reached a tipping point, and it’s time for all of us to take a good look in the mirror
Albert Einstein once said, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’. The wave we have been riding has now crashed ashore, and each of us will be required to change habits and make new choices in all aspects of our lives. None of us are exempt, nor will we be unaffected by the consequences of inaction; the alternative could well be an extinction-level event.
Regardless of personal opinions or the latest conspiracy theory, we now know COVID-19 is not going anywhere fast. This deeply egalitarian virus affects all of us, regardless of religion, fitness, class, colour, ethnicity, affluence, age or sexual orientation. There is no doubt that our abuse of the environment lies at the root, or at least contributed towards the virus’s manifestation, and we must also take responsibility for it spreading to all four corners of the planet.
Environmental destruction is fuelled by our seemingly insatiable appetite for non-essential goods and services, propelled by massive advertising and marketing campaigns. Over the lifetimes of Queen Elizabeth II and Sir David Attenborough, the global population has quadrupled. This, combined with an ever-increasing amount of consumption, has led to a terminal drain on natural resources, pollution, famine, unemployment, global poverty, climate change and the rising tide and natural disasters, such as the devastating fires in USA, Brazil and Australia. It was recently calculated that humanity needs 1.7 earths to sustain almost 8 billion of us; failure to take population into account when trying to analyse the challenges we face is to ignore the elephant in the room.
We need to seriously challenge the capital growth model and realise the consequences of such behaviour. The plant, fungal, and non-human animal kingdom lives within a well-balanced ‘trophic cascade’. Humanity on the other hand, has carved up the world into countries with political and religious polarities that make it nearly impossible to reach consensus on issues that threaten our existence.
It pains me to see the overwhelming sprawl of degraded, over-farmed and over-grazed lands throughout Europe that were once ‘living landscapes’, full of forests, wetlands, peatlands and grasslands, teeming with wildlife and acting as a mega carbon store. These utopias, other than the steep slopes and remote valleys of the Carpathians, Alps and other small pockets, are now transformed into bleak, sanitised, ‘industrial style’ mega-farms; interrupted only by urban development, complete with homes, apartment blocks, shopping centres, factories, offices and warehouses.
This is not exclusive to Europe; wildlands, from North America and Africa to Brazil and Indonesia, have been logged and burnt to make way for extensive agricultural development. Unbelievably, a massive 27% of the world’s entire landmass (excluding ice caps and deserts) has been cleared for livestock farming (in many cases heavily subsidised) and associated feed crops. The fashion, textile, disposable furniture and mining industries are also responsible for excessive deforestation.
I have some personal insight into these industries. In 1964, my father co-founded the MFI retail business, which grew to become the UK’s largest furniture retailer over 20 years. In 1985, he sold his remaining interest in the company and was excited to transition from entrepreneur to philanthropist by establishing the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (UKSA). Meanwhile, I continued for a further 15 years in the furniture business, which came to an abrupt halt when dad suffered a severe stroke and I took several months away from the office to be with him in hospital and support Mum.
During this difficult period of my life, I had the opportunity to reflect and realise I was part of the problem; so I decided to exit the ‘low-cost, fast furniture’ business and move into the world of conservation. I established the European Nature Trust (TENT) to support a variety of conservation and wildlife initiatives.
In 2003, I purchased Alladale in Scotland to embark on a re-wilding programme and the creation of a wilderness reserve, as opposed to the hunting, shooting and fishing land-management model. This has resulted in a much healthier and more biodiverse landscape, with a greater variety of tourists now visiting the area. It has been a real privilege to dedicate my time and resources towards restoring natural habitats and fighting for environmental causes.
Whilst filming a BBC documentary in Argentina In 2007, I had the good fortune to meet and become close friends with Doug and Kris Tompkins, environmentalists who decided to ‘sell up’ their interests in the hugely successful clothing brands Esprit, North Face and Patagonia and focus on their passion for wildland restoration. This inspirational couple have become the world’s greatest philanthropic conservationists, in my opinion. Over the last 25 years, their projects in Chile and Argentina have led to the creation and protection of 10 million acres of national parks.
Doug used to share with me his feelings of guilt over the fashion brands he created; he also told me of the endless debates he had with Steve Jobs. One constant theme struck a chord: Steve would argue that technology will come to humanity’s rescue, whilst Doug maintained that nature and beauty will be our saviour. Perhaps both are true. Let’s look at some of the challenges we face and decide.
Surely we should begin to legislate for the greater good, rather than allowing society to put money above the welfare of future generations? Politicians, financiers, business leaders and the capital markets are of the belief that the planet can supply a burgeoning population with infinite resources to fuel the global economy. I refer to this ideal as the ‘never-ending exponential growth monster’.
With the offers of interest-free loans, combined with aggressive advertising campaigns, we are incentivised to buy more and more things we don’t actually need: another home upgrade, a new kitchen or sofa, the latest fashion items, disposable plastic toys, low-cost flights, the newest electric car – or yet another smartphone. We must acknowledge the carbon impact of unnecessary and excessive trading of goods like cars and wine that criss-cross the oceans filling carriers and containers!
The UN suggest that the world population is currently growing at a rate of approximately 81 million people each year; looking at the facts objectively, I think most of us can agree the planet will not be able to sustain this growth. This scenario looms ahead of us with the inevitability of an oncoming freight train.
There are, of course, many contributing reasons for the sharp rise in global population, from religion, poverty, poor education, financial incentives, disease and cultural beliefs, amongst others. I hear a lot of people pass the blame and say, ‘oh, but the average family in Europe and North America have less than two kids and the issue lies with developing regions like Africa, India and Southeast Asia’.
Whilst it’s true that the majority of population growth occurs in these regions, the overall burden of consumption and carbon emissions of a person living in the developed world is up to 150 times that of an individual living in the undeveloped world – the very places that are most affected by climate change.
Whilst efforts such as recycling, mitigating the use of plastics, installing solar panels and the purchase of an electric vehicle are well-intentioned, we must accept the fact that infinite growth on a finite planet is not an option; less is definitely more. We must now dramatically reduce our consumption, whilst simultaneously tackling the herd of elephants in the room – the population problem.
Against our emotional instincts, we need to consider a one-woman, one-child policy (with adoption as an option for a second child) and accept the short/medium-term issues that might prevail. Alternatively, we might well follow a similar path of the Mayan civilisation: deforestation, excessive cultivation, climate change, drought, crop failure, famine and, finally, starvation. This is not an easy or popular thing to say, but we have reached a crossroads in our evolution and we must take these issues seriously. If we don’t, it will be nothing short of catastrophic.
Prior to Covid-19, we became accustomed to a daily scourge of holiday offers along with relentless discounts from low-cost operators. There are the cruise ship holidays to Antarctica: quite possibly the most remote, inhospitable, and unspoilt place on earth; probably best left to the scientists and researchers to measure the effects of climate change on the ice! After all, thanks to Sir David, we have the opportunity to watch the most amazing natural history films, with incredible landscape and wildlife sequence, without leaving our home.
Similarly, despite the extensive breadth and depth of online and TV sports coverage, millions of people – at a personal and carbon cost – jump in cars, hop on trains or book a flight to attend away matches and games. The 2019 UEFA Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal was played in Baku (Azerbaijan), thousands of air miles from London. Why was the match not played at Wembley, for example?
Just imagine the negative impacts of motorsports, polo and international horse racing, with the air freighting of cars and stressed horses around the globe! Is it clever or justifiable to host weddings, stag and hen parties abroad, so all guests are required to fly at their own expense and that of the environment? What about non-essential educational exchanges, where graduates and parents opt for schooling overseas, plus the additional carbon cost for visiting family and friends?
We must look at the traditional definition of ‘achievement’, which pertains to material success and the accomplishments of talented entrepreneurs, sports stars, artists and celebrities. The top 1% of wealthiest people control 45% of the world’s capital; how sustainable can this be in light of current circumstances? Successful entrepreneurs and global celebrities represent a tiny minority of the population, while most people are employed or operate modest businesses. However, creating and leaving a ‘legacy’ is a very different matter. In my view, a legacy is related to contribution and charitable giving, moving beyond endless wealth creation.
We all know how celebrity ‘aura’ can empower, bringing focus and funding to good causes (such as we have witnessed with the current pandemic). To give money is one thing, but to get involved and roll your sleeves up is so much more rewarding and effective, especially with such a pool of global talent. But here comes the crunch: less than 3% of charitable giving is directed towards the environment, climate change, and wildlife. One must remember, we depend on nature – nature does not depend on us.
As the Scottish-American naturalist and adventurer, John Muir, wrote, ‘when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world’. So what else can we do to avoid the bleak future that is thundering towards us like the four horsemen of the apocalypse?
Surely, it’s time for us all to move towards a plant-based diet for a richer and more sustainable environment? Shifting from the horrendous factory and industrial-scale farms, filled with suffering livestock, would improve carbon capture, mitigate flooding and help prevent droughts. It might create cleaner air, reduce contaminated water and lead to healthier soils – the very fabric of all life on earth.
Over time, agricultural areas could be re-wilded, thereby increasing recreational spaces for burgeoning urban dwellers, whilst allowing rural communities to engage with an agro-economy, based on nature tourism and associated micro industries.
We should also understand that zoonotic diseases like SARS, Bird Flu and COVID-19 are the direct result of our proximity to livestock, domesticated and wild animals. David Quammen, scientist and author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic writes, ‘Humanity is a kind of animal, inextricably connected with other animals: in origin and in descent, in sickness and in health’.
We also need to pay closer attention to where our produce comes from: green beans from New Zealand, garlic from China, apples from Chile, grapes air-freighted from South Africa, Spanish tomatoes, Argentinian and Californian wines, water from Fiji, vegetables, fruits and kelp from Australia and beer from Japan. We need to consider the toxic industry of flying decorative flowers from Colombia and East Africa to Holland, only to be then redistributed all over Europe.
With extended supply chains already under pressure, local produce for local communities is a mantra we must heed with a move towards an ‘eco-localism’ model. This can even extend to our own green spaces. Wild gardens, which have proved so popular at shows, can support a huge amount of flora and fauna, encouraging bees and other essential pollinators.
Even better, explore the principles of permaculture and plant some vegetables too. Replacing traditional lawns in this way would not only save on mower fuels and harmful pesticides, but mitigate further the carbon footprint associated with food production whilst reducing your GMO intake.
As a result of COVID-19, the travel industry will be impacted for months and years to come, which means responsible, conscious and sustainable travel will be the new norm. During lockdown, we have become used to holding meetings via Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp and other applications, challenging the need for wasteful and unnecessary business trips. There has never been a more compelling reason for a ‘stay-cation’ to explores corners of the UK you hadn’t considered before, helping support the struggling hospitality industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it.
When international travel becomes possible, why not spend time connecting with the wilder areas of Europe, from the Carpathians and Asturias to Abruzzo and Scandinavia? Wherever we live, let’s prove our worth by making compassionate and discerning choices and enjoying the treasures of our continent. Further afield, a well-researched African or Indian wildlife trip can go a long way in supporting local communities, protecting wildlife and helping to combat illegal poaching.
Finally, one of humanity’s unique traits is that no two people think alike; therefore, I trust you realise these are my personal opinions, which will not be shared by all. However, at the very least, I hope you’ll take time to reflect on the changes you can make toward a more harmonious world when we emerge from lockdown. We can all do something, and there is no time to waste.