Before the 19th century, vast herds of bison wandered across much of the North American continent. Their numbers were estimated at topping 60 million. By 1900, there were only 300 left. What happened? They were overhunted for their hides and meat, and for sport: stories are told of bison being shot from trains and left to rot where they fell. It was only through the work of public and private conservation efforts that they were brought back from the brink.
Flocks of passenger pigeons were said to darken the sky when they flew overhead, and modern research estimates that there were 3-5 billion birds at the time of European arrival in North America at the turn of the 16th century. By 1914, the last one had died in captivity, the species driven to extinction through widespread persecution and deforestation. A few centuries earlier, one of their distant but better known relatives, the dodo of Mauritius, was also made extinct after only 80 years of contact with humans.
Complicit in all of these cases was an attitude that man’s actions were too small to make an impact on such prolific animals. There was also the belief that God would never let one His creatures go extinct. It is easy to hear stories like this, shake our collective heads and sigh, “How sad! People were so short sighted back then. But at least we’ve learned from these experiences and it will never happen again.”
But have we? Just look at how we treat our oceans. Overfishing has caused fish stocks to plummet. Tonnes of wildlife are caught and killed as bycatch in the fishing industry. For centuries, the seas have been treated as a dumping ground for everything we want rid of, from raw sewage to industrial waste. All of this has been caused, in part, by an attitude that man’s actions were too small to have an impact on such a massive ecosystem.
Yet today it is estimated that global fish production is nearing its limit and 5-13 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean each year, a figure that is forecast to only go up. You don’t have to be watching BBC’s Blue Planet 2 to recognise that this level of fishing and plastic pollution is a serious threat to the health of our whole environment.
The mindset today tends to be that the problem is too big for us to do anything about individually, coupled with a belief that science and technology will get us out of the mess we’ve made. Yet there is so much that can we can do ourselves, within our own communities, that can have a global impact:
- Don’t add to the problem: Much of the waste we produce now results from the drive for convenience and time-saving products, but it’s at the expense of creating mountains of single-use rubbish. Check out Five Habits to Help Reduce Your Wasteline to see how you can cut back on waste at home without adding any undue burdens on yourself.
- Set a good example: Don’t underestimate the power of visibly changing the status quo through seemingly small actions. For example, using a reusable coffee cup at the office or when out and about sends the message that this is the new normal. Talk to your children about the importance of using environmentally friendly products and not littering. Give “green” gifts to help others start down the path of a living a more sustainable life.
- Take a moment: Check to see if the foods and products you buy are from a sustainable source, and if the packaging can be recycled, reused, or composted.
- Help mitigate problems: A plastic bottle chucked into the river from a bridge in Chippenham will eventually make it out to sea. Pick up litter when you can, especially in areas where it can easily be blown into waterways.
- Raise your voice: Put pressure on those in power to actually do something about the problem, and ensure that this is kept up regardless of who’s in office. Politicians tend to think in terms of election cycles, not decades, but the problems facing our environment at the moment require long-term planning and solid actions, not just campaign promises.
Beyond politicians, let manufacturers and businesses know that, as consumers, we want less plastic and waste.
Now imagine it’s the year 2100. What will the current residents of our planet be looking back at and shaking their heads about? What will they say was so short sighted of us? What is stopping us from acting NOW to prevent that future from happening?