How and why our environmental priorities are shifting

How and why our environmental priorities are shifting

by Martin Livermore
article from Monday 15, January, 2018

EARLY CIVILIZATIONS evolved after the development of arable farming about 10,000 years ago. This enabled settled communities to grow and some people to specialise in skills other than hunting and foraging. Life was still unbelievably hard by today’s standards, but the basis for development of modern societies was established.

During the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution transformed the lives of vast numbers of people. Families moved from the land as cities grew and factory jobs rocketed. Not all the change was for the better initially, but this phase of development was another essential component of our current prosperity.

As life became gradually less of a struggle for everyday survival, advances in public health and medicine drove further improvement. The realisation that bacteria caused many diseases and that a clean water supply was essential, cut avoidable outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. The mid-20th Century development of antibiotics and widespread vaccinations finally brought many infectious diseases with high mortality rates under control.

Most readers will have lived through a time when smallpox was eradicated and polio nearly so, while most babies in the developed world are routinely protected from many serious childhood diseases. The spectre of HIV has emerged, but is now essentially under control. Viruses remain a threat and the declining effectiveness of existing antibiotics is a real concern, but the major health problems across much of the world comes largely in the form of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes.

While we can’t pretend that life is a bed of roses for everyone, particularly in the developing world, many of today’s major problems are self-inflicted. Countries suffering civil war, poor governance or high levels of corruption cannot fulfil their potential until they are at peace and properly governed for the benefit of all citizens. Fortunately, despite a lost half-century or so, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now on the road to a better future taken by much of South East Asia decades ago.

In this fortunate world, at least for those of us lucky to live in developed countries, life has been made even easier by the rapid development of IT, although what goes under the heading of social media has been a very mixed blessing. The saying that a lie can go halfway round the world while the truth is putting its shoes on (normally, but wrongly, attributed to Mark Twain) has never been truer.

So, we find ourselves at a time in history where a large majority of citizens across the industrialised world no longer have to worry about food (except eating too much of it), shelter or clothing. This group finds itself at or near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In its original form, the top of the pyramid was self-actualisation; essentially, making the most of our potential. At a later stage, Maslow himself talked of a further stage: self-transcendence.

This is what we can see as the desire to improve society and is one of the underlying motivations for volunteer work and NGOs. After the traumas of the Second World War, it is not surprising that a recovering and increasingly prosperous world looked to improve the natural environment and protect what we see as basic human rights.

Care for the environment has become mainstream and, despite continuing bad news stories (as we know, almost all news is bad) our air and water are much cleaner than our parents experienced as young adults and conservation is an important component of what farmers are rewarded for. Large emerging economies, China and India in particular, are going through their own Industrial Revolutions and are only just beginning to tackle their severe air and water pollution, but in the West we are nearer the top of the environmental hierarchy of needs.

Big, overarching issues – climate change in particular – dominate the sector and are embedded in our psyches (to the extent that most people take them for granted and treat them as background noise to their lives). Debate, such as it is, is between relatively small numbers of people who take an active interest, for whatever reason. This present state of affairs has been a long time building, with a constant stream of messages from the IPCC and others. For much of the time, this has played out in traditional print and broadcast media, but the IT Revolution means that social media now leads the way.

This is perhaps the main reason why the focus is changing regarding matters of the environment. Climate change is still the predominant theme, but we hear less about this directly than a few years ago, maybe because this is simply not a top of mind issue for most citizens. Every now and again, ocean ‘acidification’ rears its head as a likely consequence of higher CO2 levels, even if global warming turns out to be less severe than we were being led to believe.

In fact, there must be a strong suspicion that the scientific establishment has also accepted that the climate models are tuned to give projections that are too high to be consistent with observations. Is it possible that other issues are coming to the fore to move attention away from this?

Air pollution has been an issue for some time, but this has certainly come much higher up the agenda recently, probably to provide more direct motivation for the intended move away from the internal combustion engine. And over the last few months, plastics have become the number one issue; again, a problem that has been around for a long while, but now given much greater prominence.

People who believe in conspiracy theories might be tempted to think that this change of priorities is a coordinated one that is intended to move us towards the goal of a ‘low-carbon’, green future more easily than simply beating us over the head with a single issue year after year. Or, it could just be the way that social media picks up on and amplifies messages. Either way, priorities shift and messages evolve. It will be interesting to see what 2018 brings.

Martin Livermore writes for the Scientific Alliance, which advocates the use of rational scientific knowledge in the development of public policy. To subscribe to his regular newsletter please use this link.

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