Important environmental issues

Important environmental issues are those we truly care about. And for us to care one of three feelings must be strong within us — awareness, pain or risk. 

  • awareness — we must either know that the issue exists and maybe even have a twinge of guilt about it
  • pain — where we have a problem with what the issue means 
  • risk — believe that the issue will bring some problem or pain at some point in the future 

This personal perspective sounds rather harsh as we all have good feelings too. We know that the environment is a source of wellbeing. And this empathy makes us think of list of environmental issues less obviously associated with personal pain — saving whales would be a good example. 

Empathy is an important feeling too.

Making it personal means that if you asked 50 people to make a list of important environmental issues you would get 50 different lists. There would be common issues of course. Some with media driven inflated sense of importance and others that just resonate.

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Awareness

Where we live, how we live and what we have been told by parents, teachers and peers, have a strong influence on our awareness. This is as it should be. We need to be a product of our environment as this is important for our wellbeing.

One downside of our innate parochialism is that we see the world through a specific lens. The one handed down to us.

When I was an academic, students would often ask me what would be a good a career choice. 

“Anything is good,” I would reply, “ so long as you are good at it”. 

Puzzled by such an obtuse answer many would then ask “And what can I do now if I’m not sure what I’m good at.”

Knowing that they needed a more practical suggestion I would tell them “Go and live in another culture for a while. Not just visit like a tourist does or go somewhere that is similar to here, but get to live in another country, preferably far away. Volunteer if you have to. It will be amazing where it will take you, even if you end up back home.” 

The ones that took this advice grew up faster and created many opportunities for themselves. What also happened was they got to see the environment through another lens — their awareness increased.

An African will gaze longingly at cultivated fields rather than wildlife habitat for a reason. You only find out why if you spend time in his country.  

tropical cyclone Ita off the coast of north-eastern Australia, April 2014

Pain

When we are in pain we search for the cause of pain. Then we avoid known causes whenever we can. Being able to feel pain is essential for our survival. 

We care about the things that cause us pain so that we can avoid them. Important environmental issues are often those that are painful. Not just physical pain but more financial or emotional pain.

We don’t want to clear up after a cyclone or feel the fear of one coming.

Nor do we want to pay more for food even if it helps to achieve food security. 

Then there is the NIMBY problem. The last place we want pain is at home so we like to keep our own back yards as pain free zones — not in my back yard. African villages are usually swept with a grass broom every day, partly because it makes the yards look good but mostly so that it is easier to see snakes.  

Important environmental issues often become so because they affect us close to home. 

Risk

Given a choice nobody would live next to a garbage dump that was on fire most of the time. The toxic smoke is an obvious health risk. 

Nor would people choose to live beneath mobile phone towers or close to the beach on tropical islands in earthquake zones. Not unless they weighed up the risk and decided that there were enough benefits to take a punt on getting cancer or washed away by a tsunami. 

Of course there are economic reasons that override risk. 

Many of the villages in Sri Lanka  devastated by the 2004 tsunami were at risk because  the people had nowhere else to live. They had to be close to where they could earn a living. The risk was taken out of necessity.

Important environmental issues are close 

When the list of environmental issues are made they often reflect a consensus — what an organisation thought was important or what logic determined as the greatest risk or potential for pain.  

What really matters are the issues that we 

  • know about 
  • can feel
  • worry us  or
  • have some empathy for

And there is nothing wrong with this personal focus. If people are empathic, well educated and move through life with their eyes open, then the important environmental issues will be in the frame. 


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lifestyles that include a beach rarely make the list


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