Zero Waste Scotland chief executive Iain Gulland reflects on the inspirational words of pioneering naturalists from John Muir to Sir David Attenborough on valuing the diversity of all life on Earth - and how restoring our understanding of our place in the world will combat the climate emergency.
“This generation knows more about the natural world than any before...television viewers can see the world in a way that we've never done in human history, and we can see what a privilege it is to have inherited this wonderful planet.”
These words from veteran environmentalist and presenter Sir David Attenborough at a charity dinner in Edinburgh held by The Hunter Foundation don’t really credit his own pioneering role in forging the public’s growing love and understanding of just how incredible nature is. Or how he has developed that role to help bring the reality of the climate crisis threatening our planet home to millions of people through stark and influential TV documentaries beamed direct into our living rooms.
Few have had the privilege to hear Sir David in person, much less to ask him a question - though many would relish the chance. Last week I shared the excitement of the Scottish teenagers whose strong, practical and inspiring ideas on responding to the climate emergency won them an invitation to join me at the fundraiser to hear the renowned naturalist speak.
Listening to his words, delivered with grace and gravitas, was a timely reminder that good storytelling is key to great leadership.
He also reminded us of another, less obvious facet of truly great leadership - embracing diversity. And, as he warned, we are not doing that. The importance of recognising the diversity of life on Earth is being lost and the impact is clear for all to see.
We are heading for disaster until we restore our understanding of our place in the world - and act accordingly. As human beings we are part of nature, not apart from it. The richness and variety of our flora and fauna is vital to our survival and that of the entire planet - we need to nurture and value it for what it is.
Viewing ourselves as somehow “separate” from nature is a sure way to set ourselves up to fail in the fight against the climate crisis.
At Zero Waste Scotland we are leading the fight to end the country’s unsustainable demand for resources, which is the single greatest cause of our carbon footprint. Our huge overconsumption habit is as much a threat to the survival of our plants and animals as it is to communities, both near and far, struggling to cope with flood and fire as natural disasters become more commonplace. Relating these often distant-seeming threats to our daily lives and choices is hard, but there is a clear, direct link to our consumption habits through the damaging carbon emissions they create.
The United Nation’s landmark Sustainable Development Goals setting out the priorities for living within our planet’s means understandably focus on the need for equality for everyone - “leaving no-one behind”. But we also need to end the wider inequality which Sir David raises, threatening the survival of all life on Earth.
There is comfort he says from the fact that people all around the world now know there is a climate emergency and realise that we need to change. As he puts it: “The age of indifference is over. We are all in this together...and the future is in our hands.” The response from secondary pupils across Scotland to the climate challenge we set and sponsored for the event is testament to that.
Their ideas were so impressive that we chose three winners instead of one. Denny High School, near Falkirk, proposed Do It Days, from meatless Monday to walking Wednesday; Perth Grammar School suggested a shift from disposable to reusable products like water bottles by embedding sustainability in the curriculum; while George Heriot’s in Edinburgh presented plans for an annual school sustainability summit to discuss ideas including more recycling processing facilities in Scotland.
All of which brings me new hope in this time of fear and confusion when the benefits of modern communication are often tempered by the stress of information overload and fake news.
Generations before the advent of television made Sir David a household name, and long before the internet and the spectre of the climate crisis, 19th century environmentalist John Muir was also pioneering work to protect our planet. The Scots-born father of conservation had a passion for exploring and protecting the world’s wild places. His efforts, writing and campaigning to look after them, left a lasting legacy in the form of the national parks we have around the world.
Muir’s words also remain pertinent and are still widely quoted today, reaching more people online than he may have ever dreamed possible. If anything, Muir’s message to us on how to live on Earth is even more relevant now than it was in his time.
As we change our ways and return to our natural place in the world to end the climate crisis it could help to keep in mind one of his most famous quotes: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
From John Muir to Sir David there is a clear understanding of the common thread which connects us all - the diversity of life and the intricate links between people, planet, flora and fauna which are key to our collective survival. It is time to embrace and value this diversity.