The sound of a aeroplane soaring over the auditorium punctuated the speakers sentence. “What you eat is twice as important as what you drive when it comes to carbon emissions,” he emphasised. “If you’re a vegetarian teach a meat eating friend of yours a great vegetarian dish,” he said, before admitting he was a pescatarian.
This man was David Tilman. He was talking at the recent INTECOL conference in London that I was at. Though he made some good points, he did what a lot of ecologists do – he didn’t follow his own advice. I’m not singling him out for criticism, thankfully – if nothing else it could be disastrous for my career.
Many ecologists think the world is going down the plughole. We offer advice on how this could be solved whether it’s stronger regulation or a new protected area. This is all great and together we have undoubtedly helped stop a whole host of species from going extinct and communicated the general importance of nature to those who care to listen.
However, we also give out plenty of advice that falls on deaf ears. We talk in hushed tones about overpopulation and overconsumption, and that something should be done about them. But how many of us actually change our behaviour to combat these issues? I’d guess at not many.
I know I could do better for a start. I drive too much, don’t use public transport or my bike as much as I should and buy too many clothes, electronics and shiny things. Just because I work in conservation research it doesn’t magically offset my impacts. But I also don’t eat meat, I’m trying to cut down flying and I try not to eat anything that has palm oil in it.
Part of the problem comes down to the fact that some big things are really hard to solve. For example, reducing the impacts of energy production at home is hard when no-one in government is willing to stand up for relatively clean tech, like, say, nuclear power that could help transition to a lower carbon economy.
But we do have a choice when it comes to our consumption habits and we would do well to examine ours carefully. Without this we are in danger of being lumped together with politicians and the catholic church as people who want others to do as we say, not as we do.
There are 3 obvious things most of us could change.
As David Tilman says, the most obvious place to start is by eating less meat. If you eat meat every day try to make it once every two days, if you eat meat once every two days try to make it once every three. There are so many amazing books and websites that can help with this, there is no excuse. I am well aware that vegetarian food suffers an image problem – people think it is all lentils and lettuce. Try dishes like these and you will find out vegetarian food can be exciting, surprising and delicious.
It goes without saying that we should try to fly as little as possible. This isn’t always practical but skype meetings can be just as productive as meeting in person. I have chatted to supervisors, collaborators and people giving me data this way and once you get over the initial weirdness it’s fine.
When you do travel do it by train as much as possible. If you live in Western Europe nearly everything within 2-3,000km of you is reachable in ~24 hours. There are great websites to help with this and this way there’s less messing around in departure lounges and it’s easier to get things done without the distractions of the office. Some, like the director of the Tyndall centre in the UK, have even opted to travel from the UK to China by train in the past, and why not. You could write a paper or two on the way. (See Kevin Anderson’s blog for further musings on this.)
We should also cut down on driving or at least car pool as much as we can. This isn’t that hard to do and has actually got me gainful employment by making new contacts in the past. Fixing these problems doesn’t need to only bring benefits to the environment.
We are constantly encouraged to buy the latest vital gadget. The one that will make you more attractive, a better parent, a better person. Think before you do. Extraction of rare earths to make these things can pollute ecosystems and poison people. Put an ad blocker on your internet browser – it’ll stop the incessant ads bugging you to buy things you don’t need. If you really need something, try to buy it second hand.
I know I won’t guilt trip people into making the right decision, really I just want people to think more. Many ecologists have chosen the career because of their love of nature. If we aren’t more thoughtful about how we live, we’re probably doing it more harm than good.