Can any ONE change the world?

By Peter Maddox, Director, WRAP UK

You’d have to be living on another planet not to have been aware of the current focus in the UK on the future of our own planet. Of the many questions raised over climate change, one affects us all: can we as individuals make any difference? If so, what can, and should we do? The answers lie in a cocktail of politics, science and good-old gut reaction.

Three recent events last month stand out for me. There were the protests by environmental campaigners in London and around the world; the visit to this country of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough’s latest BBC programme Climate Change: The Facts. 

And just this weekend, there was another resounding alarm bell from a UN-sponsored report which warns that a man-made “mass extinction event” is already underway – the first since an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

I remember similar public concern in the 1970s and 80s about the thinning of the ozone layer exacerbated by chemicals released from fridges and cooling equipment. That public outcry resulted in the Montreal Protocol in 1987 banning the production of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals. Ozone levels had stabilised by the mid-1990s and began to recover in the 2000s. 

People became aware and reacted, policy-makers listened, and a global change resulted. Not a bad process.

It wasn’t a perfect result however. As Nathaniel Rich points out in Losing Earth, his excellent new account of how the protocol came about and what happened next, it was also a time of missed opportunities with consequences for climate change that we are living with today. 

Whether you agree or not with the tactics of Extinction Rebellion, you have to acknowledge that their high-profile protests put climate change firmly back in the media spotlight. As did Greta Thunberg’s visit. 

Then, direct into our living rooms through the power of the BBC, we were watching the technicolour impact of climate change and the wretched plight of our planet’s noble creatures as they fight a losing battle against the man made damage on their habitat. I felt inspired and motivated to look at how I can make my voice heard, but perhaps more importantly, my actions count.

It was excellent to see the reality of climate change writ large across the BBC where it can inform and infuse people with a desire to act, and demand change. And while Climate Change: The Facts was heart-breaking, it ended on a note of hope. We still have time. 

I was particularly impressed with the focus on our consumption habits and putting food waste in the context of climate change. I’ve written before about how explaining a big problem on an individual level can help people see how they can become part of the solution. 

The science of climate change is undisputable now and as a species we clearly have been playing fast and loose with our natural resources for far too long. We face a future which we have blighted for our children, our grandchildren and future generations we will never know. We owe it to act, today.

It’s time to stop thinking “it’s so big, my small actions will make no difference”. I’m thinking of the famous Buddha quote about being able to light a thousand candles from one lit flame.

Yes, politicians have the power to drive collective change. Yes, businesses need to face up to their responsibilities and hard-wire sustainability into their DNA. This is the case for everywhere we are exceeding planetary boundaries. And at WRAP, we will continue to do everything we can to push to achieve our vision of a world where resources are used sustainably.

But this will only take us so far. We simply all have to play our part. And I would love to think that we could look back and see these last months as a turning point in which we all looked into our conscience and when the flame was lit.