While they’re more likely to give up gin and tonic than call themselves environmentalists, my aunts are among the most switched-on people I know when it comes to environmental action. I overheard them on a recent Christmas visit discussing recycling techniques: how to stuff crisp wrappers into a non-recyclable carton to post back to the manufacturer, the most effective counter-top arrangement for waste segregation, where to get a cheap soda stream to support the shift away from much-loved bottled fizzy water, arguing over what does and doesn’t go into the green bin in their area and where to get the best local vegetables (no plastic bags).
While they’ll readily admit, when pressed, to being unsure of the best thing to do, they are unquestionably committed to doing something. And this is precisely what they get cross with me about in these columns. “Yes, Hannah. We get that there are enormous, intractable, systemic problems. But what is it that you want us to actually do?”
So, since you asked, here are some new year’s resolutions for nature. They involve taking more time, spending extra money, doing the hard thing, occasionally feeling a bit awkward, and – on their own – they won’t solve the climate crisis or reverse biodiversity loss. But they’re a start.
Accept that it’s complicated
There are no easy answers. Anyone who says there are is not being honest. Planetary systems are more complex than science can describe, let alone predict, and nobody understands the totality of their implications for individuals’ behaviour.
For instance: palm oil is bad, yes, but is “sustainable” palm oil any more destructive than other types of vegetable oil? Some studies suggest it isn’t. Trade-offs are frequently unclear, so be agnostic about the issues, act in good faith, remain adaptable in the face of the new information. It’s complicated. Be okay with that.
Change the infrastructure
We’re all part of the system, like it or not, and the system is broken. Unless you’re living off-grid with no batteries or generators or technology, growing everything from scratch and not using public services, your primary personal responsibility is to change the system’s infrastructure: at work, at home, through hobbies, in your garden, whenever, wherever you have agency. Not everyone will get it and even among those who do, you will raise eyebrows. Plough your own furrow regardless and don’t get preachy or binary in your attitudes. Do what you can, when you can.
Send an email
Politicians are the people society has tasked with getting to grips with the big stuff and making decisions on its behalf, so make sure yours know how you expect them to act. Vote. Raise issues on the doorstep. Email your councillors, TDs and MEPs, regularly. If you do only one thing, this is probably the most important.
Of waiters, suppliers, shopkeepers, bosses, pension advisers, everyone. Is this veg in season? Is my financial investment funding things that are actively bad for the environment? Is this pair of jeans made from less unsustainable cotton? Does our prequalification questionnaire include environmental sustainability considerations? They may not have the answer – they probably won’t – but in asking the question, you make it relevant. Embrace the awkward feelings and use your voice.
Send market signals, loudly and often
Buy things with sustainability labelling. Is it perfect? Probably not, but don’t let that be the enemy of the less bad and send the market a signal anyway. Check the offset button if you fly. Download the MSC Good Fish Guide app and spend two extra minutes in the fridge aisle, establishing the provenance of your tuna steak. Contribute to environmental charities. Choose public transport where possible. Shift to the greenest utilities providers you can. Demand a brown bin. Fix broken technology where you can, dispose of it responsibly where you can’t. Leave unnecessary supermarket plastic in the supermarket.
And lastly, be kind
Have compassion for yourself and for others. The environmental crisis is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, we don’t have all the information, our leaders aren’t leading and the clock is ticking. In this context, the urgent frustration of clashing world views and competing priorities can entrench polarised positions around “us” and “them” rather than promoting a collective movement that unites society around the common global good. In all you do for the planet and the life in and on it, do it with kindness.
Hannah Hamilton is a sustainability consultant specialising in biodiversity conservation and environmental communications – @theriverfield