12 Things I learnt about tackling environmental issues from my MSc

ucl graduation

I graduated last Tuesday! Exactly a year since I finished my social science MSc in environment studies at UCL. A year on, 8 months into a great job, it seems a long time ago. I’ve learnt and changed so much since then and I think it’s become easy to be complacent about what I learnt and experienced.

It’s become easy to take this knowledge for granted and not use it in the real world. It’s become easy to forget the important lessons I learnt in the academic world. I see this day to day, how people seem to be so unaware of current research and latest academic theory. It seems most of the general public takes it’s knowledge from biased newspapers. Not that research isn’t slightly biased but it’s peer reviewed and scientific. This stagnation is dangerous, I see it everywhere even within myself. It’s easy for opinion and anger at the world to take over which hinders openness and critical thinking. It’s easy to see everyone/thing as evil. But feeling like that won’t change anything!

My MSc opened my eyes to the realities of our struggle and how mankind can maybe work together to bring positive change. So I’m going to take this opportunity to look back on some of the important things I learnt (and some of the interesting things) and make sure I don’t forget them in my attempts to fight for our planet. They are lessons we could all bear in mind.

  1. The issue of the environment is extremely complex. It is multi-faceted. There’s always multiple sides to a story and you can never ever take that for granted. You have to keep a very open and critical mind, constantly.
  2. There really is no right answer, but there is likely a combination of thousands of almost right answers that can work together to provide a sort of solution. It’s all about collaboration and experimentation. We have to learn as we go.
  3. The environmentalists are not always the good guys and the polluters are not always the bad guys. And very much vice versa. Disastrous mistakes can be made on both sides but it doesn’t necessarily mean failure. We’re all human after all. Admitting you made a mistake is actually ok (*cough cough* government badger cull and Greenpeace of late).
  4. Academics and scientists believe the precautionary principle should be at the forefront of everything we do. I agree. At a basic level, this is the idea that if there is any indication an activity is harmful to the environment (or people) in any way, that activity should be instantly banned until further science can be carried out to investigate the true impact before any more potential harm occurs. For example, if you saw a red berry on a tree and thought it might be poisonous you would find out if it is before eating it.  I think this is common sense. However, it isn’t to the authorities. The government sees the precautionary principle as a very negative thing as it (in their eyes) can be very damaging (economically). They argue more science would have to be done to categorically prove something is harmful first, all the while letting it cause destruction. This sums up the approach to climate change which we knew about 70 years ago.
  5. Not all environmentalists are naive hippies or treehuggers with sandals who want to legalise weed. Far from it, I think more than ever ‘environmentalists’ are just ordinary people who, in their mind, feel it is the right thing to do. It is just a different perspective but we all think in different ways. I agree with nuclear for example but many environmentalists don’t. Like all groups of society, we cannot just be grouped together under one stereotype!
  6. Even though yes there are huge issues with electric cars (the manufacture and them being only as green as their source of the electricity) they are still better for the environment than fossil fuel cars.
  7. There are acceptable strands of economic theory out there that justify human suffering. The greater good and all that. (Hot Fuzz anyone?)
  8. The term ‘sustainable development’ actually means very little because the definitions are so broad. You can’t really trust anything that claims to be ‘sustainable’. ‘Ecological modernisation’ is the new approach in this vein.
  9. Protected areas don’t guarantee anything if they are not managed effectively. Unfortunately there are many that are not managed effectively even famous ones such as the Galapagos Islands. They are often in practice no more than ‘paper parks’ so learning how to effectively manage them is a key challenge for conservation to take on. Management such as this comes under ‘environmental governance’ theory.
  10. The reason for this because a lot of conservation forgets that it has to work with people. Protecting the environment must inherently be about our own relationship with it and how this can be built and how it should progress. So throwing out native people from national parks is not the way to do this (a common occurence). The amazing thing about environmentalism for me is that it’s not just about saving the polar bears, it’s about creating a better world for us. Protecting the environment brings us huge undeniable benefits.
  11. You cannot always trust labeling that promises sustainability/eco-friendly/certified. These industries are complex and multi-layered. Goods slip through the net. It is impossible to guarantee everything is safe. This is why I no longer eat cod or tuna.
  12. Finding a way to overcome the value-action gap is potentially one of our biggest obstacles. This is is where you hold a certain value but do not act upon it. So for example, you might feel it is wrong to eat meat because of animal cruelty, however, you still continue to eat meat. Everyone does it. There are many people who are concerned about climate change but do little or nothing to reduce their carbon footprint. As well as changing attitudes, which is certainly occurring, we need to find ways to encourage people to align their actions with their values. Perhaps recognising this within ourselves is the first step.
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2 thoughts on “12 Things I learnt about tackling environmental issues from my MSc

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your list as a “should-could-woulda” environmental studies major. I realized my passion too late into my college career, but perhaps there is always time to go back. Thank you for making note of the uselessness of the hippie stereotype and of the electric car. One of my goals is to show people environmental conservation can be for anyone.

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    1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yeah I was lucky to have on the off chance a history module on climate change in my undergrad and then I was hooked. Also lucky enough to have the resources to do a MSc after. If you ever get the chance you should definitely study something environmental. I found studying something I was truly passionate about to be so different to my previous studies. Yeah more and more the environmental movement is becoming almost mainstream which is exciting to see. I really hope to convince people that they are real issues with impacts happening now, not just eccentric hippies exaggerating!

      Liked by 1 person

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