polar bear with its head in the ground
The theme of Earth Day 2019 is "Protect Our Species". Photo by Jacqueline Godany
Insight

What’s in it for me? Garnering public support for environmental efforts

An expert on climate change and natural resource management, Simon Mercer talks about the importance of awareness-raising events like Earth Day in harnessing positive momentum and co-opting local populations into conservation interventions

The first Earth Day was held on 22nd April 1970, when millions of people took to the streets in the US to protest against the widespread environmental degradation resulting from rapid unchecked industrialisation and growth. Held every year since, Earth Day has become a global event celebrated by around 1 billion people in 192 countries across the world and is the largest civic-focused day of action on the planet.

The focus of Earth Day 2019 is ‘Protect our Species’ in recognition of the unprecedented global destruction and degradation of plant and wildlife populations that are directly driven by human activity. Recent research has highlighted the severity of this challenge, reaffirming the growing body of evidence that current rates of species loss and extinction reflect an ongoing sixth mass extinction on Earth, a period of “biological annihilation”. The impacts of such significant biodiversity loss on humans are potentially catastrophic, but as yet the scale of our response is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge.

In addition to Earth Day, recent years has seen a proliferation of international awareness events – Earth Hour, World Environment Day, World Wildlife Day – to name but a few. But what do these events actually achieve in addressing this pressing challenge, and has anything really changed since the 1970 and the founding of ‘the World’s largest environmental movement?’

Raising awareness and recognising our role

Whilst such events might not bring about the rapid and far reaching change that many of us feel is needed to halt and reverse widespread environmental destruction, they have a potentially vital role to play in raising public awareness of the urgency of the environmental challenge. They also act as useful means of highlighting practical steps people can take to reduce their own environmental impact and support the effective conservation of the vital biodiversity that sustains our planet. Such public movements force us to reflect on our actions and consider what we can do to support this change.

For the last four years, my work at LTS has centred on the delivery of the Darwin Initiative, the UK Government’s flagship programme supporting biodiversity conservation projects in developing countries around the world (previously featured on the NIRAS website). In this role, I have been fortunate enough to support the delivery of hundreds of conservation projects in a broad range of contexts. Whilst each of these projects is different, operating in diverse geographies and focused on a multitude of challenges, having a view of the whole portfolio of projects—what they have achieved and how—has left me feeling positive. Despite the level of complexity involved in addressing the conservation challenge, I am confident concrete outcomes can be achieved (see Twitter #conservationoptimism). Events such as Earth Day can have a role to play in this.