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We live in a world with a growing population that is facing climate and nature emergencies. We have to accept that this is a challenging combination of pressures that are not easy to address. 

Unfortunately, society has been fractured on this issue – split into two echo chambers into which their occupants are constantly shouting, one side wanting the other to reduce growth and the other being angered and scared by that ask. Somehow, we need to move beyond, or round, this value difference.

Right now, huge knots of tension have gathered between differing perspectives: we are constantly told a black and white version of our environmental choices – either we should grow the world economy and continue to spend and pillage our way around the planet, or we should get up at 5am to knit our own tofu and never drive cars and that the wish for both prosperity and environmental restoration is impossible. But those incredibly stereotypical boxes aren’t getting us anywhere.

We humans have it in our power to restore and repair our world, and undertake a just transition to an economy that supports everyone – a far more equal and sustainable model. No one knows what post-carbon capitalism looks like. But we need to figure it out really quickly. Which means we can’t keep on going down the same old broken paths.

Recognising fears

This is a purely personal viewpoint – but it serves to highlight one of the biggest problems we have with our current, ‘dual echo chamber’ system. As a climate scientist and environmentalist, it’s important for me to recognise that to someone who could be loosely described as a US ‘soccer mom,’ who wants to buy her daughter a big SUV for her 17th birthday, my views on our use of fossil fuels and on our consumption may seem rather threatening – and perhaps even scary. 

I may have all the evidence in the world to show that the biggest danger to our planet is in fact the process of continually taking carbon out of the ground and putting it in the atmosphere and continuing to degrade nature. But if we are to restore nature and stabilise our climate we need to agree on ways forward, we need to be able to agree on taking action. For me, I feel that means a need to recognise our soccer mom’s fear, and her inference – regardless of my intention – that I want her daughter to be poorer than her and to have fewer commodities. And I need to understand that her fear is real, to her.

Right now, we don’t have a problem with science: we know which technological tools we must harness to repair and restore our world. What we have a problem with is communication. And leadership has an important part to play in breaking that communication deadlock.

Leading with values

If you ask any human being on the planet, “What’s important to you?”, nine times out of 10 the answer will be, “My kids,” or, “My grandkids.” That’s a shared, common value that, as a species, we are drastically failing to tap into.

Whenever I think about the type of leadership we need – a style that can really cut through the noise – the phrase that comes to mind is ‘values based.’ If we continue to approach this thicket of complex issues from a standpoint of partisan, political ire, all that will happen is that we’ll find ourselves up against the same old walls of the same old silos, over and over again. That won’t take us on a path of using our shared values to tackle the nature and climate crises and secure a better, and more equitable, future for everyone on the planet.

In my life as a researcher, my main subjects are trees and forests. I’m fascinated by what trees tell us about our planet’s past if we study the rings in their trunks. They share stories about how forests have been damaged, degraded and lost across the planet – and how we can use woodland regeneration to get carbon back in the ground and provide safe places for nature by creating active working woodlands that support sustainable livelihoods. And I’ll tell you something else about trees: they’re great political levellers.

Trees’ life cycles play out on a very human timescale – and we need stoic presences like theirs to remind us of our common ground, no matter where our political loyalties lie. I could be talking to someone who has a completely opposing political and socioeconomic worldview to mine, and that may be quite a lively encounter. But if the conversation were to turn to the value of an oak tree we admire on our respective walks in a local park, we would find that there is much upon which we agree.

We desperately need leadership that is both humane and humanitarian: always on the lookout for those shared values and goals and ways to remind us that there’s far more that unites us than divides us. But at present, leadership – particularly around environmental issues – a revolves more around a brand of outspoken individualism that, instead of removing the walls around our echo chambers, only reinforces them.

Natural curiosity

As an environmentalist, the question I’m asked most often is, “What’s the one thing I can do to make things better?” But we don’t have just one item on the to-do list. There’s no silver bullet to restoring nature and stabilising our climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that we need changes at an unprecedented rate and scale, across every sector of society and the economy. So, this isn’t about doing one thing – or looking to a singular, heroic figure to provide all the answers.

In this multifaceted endeavour, the possibilities for shared values-based leadership are everywhere. It’s there in religious and community groups. It’s present in the people we go running with in the park, the people we swim with at the beach – the people with whom we play chess and bridge, the people who share our loves and passions, whatever they may be. And it’s a particularly important asset within our schools.

The UK, like most nations, misses climate and nature-preservation targets every single year. So, at present, we’re very good at observing our failures. Indeed, that is one of the most demoralising things we do as environmental scientists – monitoring year-on-year climate and nature failures! To get to the next steps, of a transition to a net zero, nature positive, world, we are going to need a huge, diverse work force of motivated and skilled engineers and scientists, and that starts in school with a wider engagement with STEM subjects.

At present, we have an intractable diversity problem in science: across the Western world, science is still seen as the preserve of middle-class, white boys. As an environmentalist and educator, one of the things that keeps me awake at night is wondering, What if a child who doesn’t fit that STEM profile, but who has the leadership potential to be the next Greta – or the skill to develop an amazing green energy solution – is sitting in a classroom in Wales thinking, ‘Science isn’t for me… I won’t get anywhere’?

We need to tear down the walls and say to children, “Here’s where scientific opportunities are in your life, regardless of your background.” And do so in a way that doesn’t place a huge, daunting burden on them to save the planet – but links science to creativity and curiosity. Children are naturally curious. They want to learn, and they want the space to be able to experiment, and to see failure as part of the process of discovery. 

Voices from our community: Mary Gagen is professor of geography at Swansea University, and co-leads the Swansea University Science for Schools Scheme (S4)


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