What can we do to protect the planet?

David Jacoby

Finding hope for humanity and wildlife in an earth of declining populations is a difficult but possible and necessary challenge.

Following our debate addressing the issues outlined in the Living Planet Report 2016 David Jacoby, Postdoctoral Researcher in ZSL's Institute of Zoology, shares his reaction in this blog.

Cormorant in a city

Sitting in a packed Huxley auditorium on an unusually balm November night, it was hard not to think 'Well actually, people do care about their impact on the planet'.

But then of course we've been here before.

We've been lulled into this false sense of security, gaining comfort from discussing our shared interests and shared moral obligations. And look where this preaching to the converted has got us in recent months.

No, it soon became clear that in order to curb the devastating loss of biodiversity that continues to occur on a global scale we need to think creatively and strategically about how we get this message outside of our science and conservation ivory towers and beyond our peer group.

So do individual actions have an impact on species survival? This was the topic up for discussion at last night's public debate at ZSL.

The facts about biodiversity loss, that most of us within our 'echo chamber' are already familiar with, were presented and as always they don't make for comfortable listening.

A discussion then ensued where we heard the perspective of author of Six Degrees and journalist, Mark Lynas, Amelia Womack, deputy Leader of the Green Party and Garry Charnock, who instigated a community-led initiative to create England’s first carbon neutral town.

The panel, completed by our own Head of the Indicators and Assessment Research Unit, Robin Freeman were both frank and open.

'This is a complicated picture' was the message.

With the right will and under the right set of circumstances, community-driven change can prevail, and often results in previously unrecognized social and financial benefits.

However, the clock can be set back repeatedly through changing governance, making progress slow and continuity difficult.

There is scope for everyone to try and make individual differences but ultimately we are becoming increasingly short on time and a sea change is needed.

It is needed to drastically alter how we, as individuals, as companies and as governments, are accountable for our actions; for how we must begin to challenge our own moral stances and take stock of what the scientific evidence is actually telling us. For example should we genetically engineer crops? Should I become a vegan?

Interestingly, it is also needed to help us, as scientists and conservationists, to get off our moral high horses and come up with ways to engage with others outside of our inner circles without judgement.

As chair, Professor Georgina Mace guided us through the debate, helping to distill the anecdotes and experiences of the panel and there was no doubt that these insights into government policy and community action were inspirational and provided plenty of food for thought.

For me though, there was something missing.

Humans are an incentive-driven species that now live in an age where if your cat does something funny enough, within the space of 24 hrs people on the other side of the earth will know about it. This unprecedented power to reach people should and must be tapped into.

We use technology everywhere to track our fitness, to control and synchronise our devices and homes and the devices and apps that allow us to do this are leading the global consumer markets. This too is a powerful resource and technology, in my opinion, also must to play a crucial role in providing people with the information necessary to assess their own impact on climate and biodiversity.

Only once it becomes popularized, routine and to some extent competitive on social media will we start to see the real progress.

So, as with any sea change or dare I say revolution, technological progress is going to be crucial.

I really enjoyed the debate last night – such events always give me a new found passion for my line of work. But that is not the purpose of these discussions. And the questions remain – Do my decisions have an impact? What can I do to help?

The truth of the matter is there are no clear guidelines, we've never been here before.

Nobody is going to tell us what to do. So it is up to the ‘preachers’ to swell the ranks of the ‘choir’ and draw on a collective knowledge, a collective optimism and a collective ingenuity to develop ways to engage, incentivize and enthuse the masses.

This was never intended as a call to arms but if ever there was a need...

Learn more: The Living Planet Report 2016

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