The Elephant In The Room
Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology
There are now over 8 billion human beings living on Earth. In the UK we’ve lost nearly 70% of wildlife populations since the 1970s. Nature is suffering elsewhere too. It isn’t a coincidence.
The RSPB (a fantastic Bird charity in the UK) recently published information that the UK is one of the most “nature depleted countries in the world coming 228 out of 240 countries and territories”. This horrifies me and gives me knots in my belly. I realise I’ve already been grieving for how much nature we have lost for many years whilst at the same time carrying a sense of fear and dread it would come to this.
I grab onto the positives when I can or else it feels too overwhelming. A few days ago I walked through the high street in the busy town where I live and noticed a strange exotic bird standing on very long legs with its back against a shop window looking dazed, and very much out of place. Many shoppers were stopping to take photos and selfies which I was sure wasn’t helping. I feared for its safety and approached to take action only to find a human barrier of 4 people protecting it. One told me they’d called the RSPCA (a wildlife charity that helps injured animals) and had been waiting for nearly an hour to get the bird some help. Thanking them for taking the time and trouble to help the bird I walked away feeling lighter and a little tearful.
I’ve been affected by the latest headlines about the state of the planet and the bird protectors gave me warmer feelings towards my fellow humans mixed with a little hope.
The RSPB, a normally fairly passive charity, are now leading a national campaign called “stop the attack on nature” – rspb-time-for-urgent-conversation to encourage the nation to talk about the scale of the loss of wildlife and take action against it – and I love them for it, the belly knots loosen a little bit.
Coming to terms with the loss of so much wildlife can have an impact on our mental well-being and is becoming more and more prevalent. Intense feelings of loss and grief are a legitimate response to the loss of so much of the natural world. Acknowledging Natures suffering can be used to fuel positive change. Academics Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman argue this type of grieving can “disrupt the dominance of human bodies as the only mournable subjects” which could help us live alongside other creatures better. By “extending grievability to more-than-human others can galvanize us to take positive action on their behalf”. And therefore much improve our Ecological ethics (from Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief.)
It feels like there is a passive hope the expanding numbers of humans won’t have too much impact and numbers will decrease sometime in the future meaning we don’t need to make any difficult decisions now, and leaving the greater challenges to future generations (a common theme to this mess we are in). Our growing populations mean even more habitats lost and destroyed to make room for agriculture to feed us all, to make way for more housing, more roads to get to that housing, more waste, even more pollution, I could go on and on….
And on top of that what’s left in nature is also suffering from the effects of climate change the same as we are.
It’s not all negative; the fact more people from all backgrounds are coming to the table and starting to share this conversation is very positive. But if we are going to deal with the situation honestly the widespread, ingrained beliefs used to justify exploiting and neglecting Nature have to be addressed and changed. There are numerous elements to this belief system.
One is cold indifference. I recently walked past a field where two men were leaning on a gate chuckling to themselves after having just penned in about 30 lambs. Most of the lambs were desperately trying to escape by trying to jump out of the pen. The mums were outside of the pen, and we were also bleating in distress. It was heartbreaking to see, hear, and feel their energy. The obvious desperation of these animals had zero impact on the men. Also heartbreaking to witness. And it’s highly likely the scene will have zero impact on the shoppers who will buy their meat in the supermarket. This for me illustrates partly how we got to the point where so many species now face extinction. Because up until now most people have had little empathy for animals who aren’t pets or taken much responsibility for the damage caused by our lifestyles.
In the UK there’s an extremely popular television programme called “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” where celebrities live in the jungle for three weeks. Part of its appeal is the Celebs eat insects and parts of exotic animals. This year there was a challenge to eat a camels penis and a sheep’s vagina. The contestants bragged about it, the presenters made jokes. This “entertainment” is another example that highlights millions, perhaps billions, completely lack empathy or respect for animals/nature. And there is a troubling deep-rooted refusal by many to change.
With this level of a lack of compassion can you see a healthy future for anything non-human?
Let’s name the behaviour and call it out. In order to make gains and develop Nature/ wildlife has been abused.
And whilst we are talking about it, it should be acknowledged that abusers are at their most dangerous when they perceive they are losing their power and control. Big businesses, developers, and those who have built their identity on exploiting nature, will all perceive they have the most to lose should there be meaningful change. Those without empathy or conscience will ramp up their behaviour at a proposed or actual change which is when nature/wildlife is at its most vulnerable. This is where sly, under-the-radar moves, gaslighting, and overt violence is most likely to occur.
A common belief abusers have is that their victims are not entitled to any boundaries which allow them to subject the victim to whatever they decide to dish out, or take from them. Stronger and new boundaries are needed to protect the planet and minimise further risks to Nature. It may take years to decide what they are so the sooner we start the better. There has been a general acceptance over the last couple of years that we need to do more to protect our planet, but there still remains a feeling of entitlement we can keep taking from wildlife and nature. We have lost too much already and what remains is too precious to lose.
By not questioning what the cost to Nature is when getting the food to the table – enables abuse. Not questioning why there’s been so much loss of wildlife, or a having a lack of compassion towards anything non-human – enables the abuse. Not having appropriate boundaries, enables the abuse. Not doing anything about it is a choice and enables abuse.
Most of the species on the planet were here before us so you could argue they have more rights to the planet that we do. A proper conversation about the needs of nature should include when are we going to stop expanding and greatly minimise the taking? How much are we prepared to give back to repair and restore what we have destroyed?
We should also make time to acknowledge the positive changes and actively support and appreciate the great work currently being done such as the re-wilding projects (see for example explore-rewilding ). Rewilding projects are fantastic, inspiring, and give hope, but much more is desperately needed. Let’s get it out in the open and have it addressed.
Cunsolo, A. & Ellis, N.R. 2018, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss”, Nature Climate Change, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 275-281.