This is not because most people don't care about wildlife. There are very few people who don't think that the survival of wild plants and animals isn't of any importance and a great many people enthusiastically watch nature programmes and are horrified by the idea that we are losing our wild spaces and impoverishing much of our agricultural land. The problem is that we have allowed a disconnect to develop between the way we live our lives and the consequences of some of our actions.
So we don't like the idea that we are pumping more and more plastic into the sea but it rarely occurs to anyone buying a nicely packaged facial scrub that there are billions of tiny plastic particles inside the recyclable jar that will exist in the environment for hundreds of years and be consumed by plankton. We just don't have the faintest idea about how much damage that will do or how we might begin to remove the seas of plastic floating in the centre of our oceans.
We like our petrol to be cheap and our cars to be fast but we don't want the Great Barrier Reef to be destroyed by the acid from the Carbon Dioxide we are pumping out as we drive.
And we want our food to be cheap and prefer to buy produce from across the globe than our own seasonal bounty but we don't want anyone to cut down the Brazilian rain forest in order to grow cheap mass produced food using methods that require intensive crop spraying.
One of the most extreme examples of this disconnect happens every year in early spring in California. Over 80% of the world's crop of almonds is grown in one small part of the states on farms that stretch for mile after mile covered by the same trees. These trees need pollinating so honeybees are put into sealed up hives and driven right across the states in time to be hired out to the almond farmers to pollinate their crops. Two thirds of all the honey bees in the states arrive at the same place at the same time and get released into the fields. Here they exchange pests and diseases with bees from across the continent and work so hard on collecting an impoverished one plant diet that well over a third of all hives in America die each year. The heavily irrigated monoculture fields get increasingly salty and are sprayed with insecticides as soon as the bees have left. Not much local wildlife can survive all that. But it is a very rare person who thinks about all that at the moment of purchase. The price of almonds on our supermarket shelves has never been cheaper and you can buy cheap tea grown via similarly intensive methods grown on hillsides that are washing pesticide rich soils into the ocean.
Faced with these kinds of problems it is simply not possible to hope that sooner or later people will spontaneously change their purchasing habits as a result of seeing enough wildlife horror tales on the TV. Most of us have to be careful with our money and it is expecting a lot of the individual consumer to hope that they will choose to stop buying cheap easily available food simply because it causes harm to wildlife or is produced by unsustainable or unethical measures. Indeed what is astonishing is the extent to which people have actually changed their buying habits despite all the incentives to the contrary. Battery produced eggs, for example, have been driven out of a lot of ready meals and supermarket shelves solely by pressure from campaigners and by consumers.
But that kind of consumer pressure is not enough. At the same time as consumers are refusing to buy some unethical products they are being tempted by price to buy others that are every bit as harmful or even more so. Many of us pass by aisles offering battery produced eggs but end up popping a ready meal into our basket that contains meat produced in ways that we would be horrified by if we knew the details. A couple of years back consumers were shocked to discover that some of their beef was in fact horsemeat. They might have been even more concerned if they had realised that the supply chains are still to this day so complex and so badly traced that it is possible for their pies or curries to contain condemned meat. More worrying still is the simple fact that the pressure to get the price of those ready meals down below the price of competitors is now so strong that many farmers producing meat can only make a living by doing so using the most unpleasant mass produced intensive agricultural methods. The cows don't have much of a life and the local environment is put under extreme stress.
You cannot fight daily economic realities with consumer persuasion. Ultimately you end up with people believing that ethical consumption is something that those rich folks do in Waitrose. It requires government action to consciously influence markets to switch consumer behaviour. It is necessary to tax certain products and subsidise others and to use the revenue to lower taxes or raise benefits for people on low incomes in order to compensate. The same is true of the need to influence behaviour to improve our health.
It has become deeply unfashionable to put forward the idea that the government might need to actually do anything to achieve change. The myth has been peddled that somehow the free market will fix all problems. But the free market cannot fix a problem like the impact on the environment of the decisions we make about what we buy and how we produce it. The free market will always force down prices and encourage the behaviour that produces an immediate economic gain for the individual at the moment of time in which the decision to buy or to produce is made.
I am not advocating that we dump all the advantages of consumer choice and market pricing. Rather we need to use those choice mechanisms by influencing and changing the cost of what we decide to do by making sure it better reflects the real costs. Governments need to step in more often and more strongly and we have to stop being afraid of the idea that government can be a helpful tool.
Put simply we have a choice. We can carry on losing our wildlife and destroying the health of our planet on unsustainable patterns of behaviour. Or we can use our collective decision making powers to put some energy back into government planning and start to consciously plan and guide our behaviour.
70% of the worlds wildlife has been destroyed in my lifetime and the pace of destruction is getting faster. At what point are we going to change direction and start to fight to preserve life on this fragile planet?