This article, by secondary school student Selene Kalra, was originally published in the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council Journal No 49 in May 2019:

In the last few months, it has been a pleasure to follow the Extinction Rebellion’s unavoidable protests in London, and Greta Thunberg’s success in triggering school strikes around the world to campaign against climate change.

What struck me as a sign of progress was that these peaceful and committed demonstrators, of all different ages and backgrounds, were duly received by the UK government, showing the positive attitude of our democratic society. Even if not all the demands have yet been met, there is now an undeniable sense of restlessness to speak out and make a difference in the attempt to reverse climate change, on a wider scale.

Yet, this is not enough. We have reached the point where governments, communities and individuals around the world must no longer be allowed to neglect the urgency of the catastrophe we have caused. As David Attenborough has said, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

My generation is the one that will face the most extreme consequences from the carelessness, greed and ignorance of the older generations, which is why a globally increasingly growing percentage of youth feel an infallible civil duty to engage with our environment.  In the words of Greta Thunberg, “Young people must hold older generations accountable for the mess they have created. We need to get angry and transform that anger into action.” We are past proving the facts, we need to use them to solve this epidemic called global warming and we need to do it now. 

But how can we do this when there is so much ignorance around us? Most of my life, like that of billions of children and young adults around the world, is spent at school, learning the facts and formulas that the system requires us to know. This is the place where we form many of the habits and opinions that we carry for most, if not all, of our life. We are taught at a young age that climate change is happening, that littering is bad, and that we need to care for our planet. Then we build our knowledge as we grow, and the holes are filled in. We learn that climate change is caused by carbon emissions, and that we can reduce this by doing simple things such as recycling and not wasting water and turning off the switches to save electricity. We are told how climate change is negatively impacting our society, environment, and even our entire existence.

However, although we are taught the basics and the theory, it has recently dawned on me that there is not enough initiative in schools to inform us how significant our role is. Why are there no recycling bins around the school? Shouldn’t there be a compost dispenser in canteens instead of one huge general-waste one? And why on Earth (literally) does plastic cutlery still exist, when so much energy is put into producing and exporting a single spoon only to be thrown away and clutter our ocean for the next century? Eco-friendly resources are rarely used in British schools because of the high costs. Recently, my school has started using only recycled paper, which is certainly a step forward, but at the moment there isn’t the budget nor the drive to push further than that.

Last February one of my teachers dropped her brand-new bottle on the floor. It was designed with a removable plastic case for unnecessary decoration, which unfortunately broke with the impact of the fall. In short, I suggested she take it home and recycle it, only to have her ridicule me in front of the class. “This girl cares so much for the environment, then you take it home and recycle it, why should I be bothered?”

I share this little anecdote to show the gravity of the situation: the extent that ignorance has reached, that if one should care one should be mocked, as was shown by the story of ‘Trash Girl”  (a girl bullied for leaving home an hour earlier to pick up litter on  her way to school) who should be acclaimed as a hero, not a subject of mockery. If I can’t rely on my teachers to set a positive example, how can I possibly expect my classmates to understand? Where is the sense of urgency in my school, and so many others in the UK, to progress? 

Of course, there are individual initiatives that play their part, and I owe a huge amount to my geography department teachers who are fully committed in transmitting the urgency of these matters to their students. Saying this, the education system should be adapted to give practical experience of sustainability to its students. For instance, taking geography and ecology to a practical level, such as in food and production sciences which would get people asking questions like: where does the food I buy originate from? How can I make a healthy meal/snack that saves money without supporting an unethical cause? A major problem is that too much of the human population is unaware of the carbon footprint and environmental effects of the food they are consuming, particularly when regarding palm oil.

It is simply ridiculous that 19.6% of the UK’s apples are imported from China, where the climate is not apt (so requires chemicals to grow) and the product has to travel around 8000 km, instead of from Britain’s own apple orchards. A Chinese apple or a South African apple is cheaper than a British apple despite the above and other factors, proving that the world’s market has no respect for the planet.

I am lucky because both my parents aim to buy only organic, good quality, nationally produced goods, enabling us to have a healthy diet that respects our  ecosystem. However, this kind of shopping is expensive even for a middle-class family living in London, let alone a low income one. It is unaffordable for many, and there is little recognition or aid from the government for supporting individuals to make more sustainable choices. In contrast, the Italian government has introduced a scheme which guarantees tax reductions on household bills for those that use renewable energy sources. Financial incentives (such as the tax reductions) can help people convert to sustainable food sources and renewable energy, having a positive overall impact.

Having spoken to several of my classmates, teachers and family members, the recurring top three strategies to tackle climate change, amongst many, have been rounded to be (not in order):

  1. Reduce the consumption of (overseas) food and products: buying less but better quality
  2. Increase use of renewable energy sources
  3. Reduce use of all unnecessary plastics: all of which can only be tackled with an educated and determined population, as well as commitment from trans-national corporations.

In particular, cutting plastic is crucial to protecting the world’s ecology, and it never fails to upset me when I see a single broccoli or cucumber wrapped in unrecyclable plastic, knowing that it will not dissipate for another 100-1000 years as it floats around in the oceans and marine animals’ stomachs. We need to take China’s refusal of accepting anymore plastic as a wakeup call to take responsibility for the mass consumption of plastic, only buying what we can utilize for a long time, or better still, find reliable alternatives.

When I complete school, I would like to study as an ecologist or agricultural scientist and then branch off into the politics of trading and economy, working to find solutions to achieve full food sustainability. Between students, we often have intense debates on global issues, and hope to bring them to higher levels. The recent protests and events reported on the media, and the enthusiastic response to ICN’s climate conference in Hounslow, prove that young people are ready to take action on the current environmental crisis. and we are hopeful that political leaders and company owners of influence, around the world, will listen to us. We hope that countries around the world will stop thinking individually and have a frank, fruitful dialogue on how to work together because it is only with wide scale initiatives that we will solve this enormous elephant in the room.