Our editor-at-large is aghast at our short-sighted approach to the environment – and its devastating effect on the world’s oceans.

Kevin McCloud Our devastating effect on the environment

While we continue to build, make and consume everything from houses and cars to bathrooms and spoons, it’s occasionally worth our while to stop and remember where it all comes from. Our planet has finite resources for us to dig and suck up. And our global rubbish bin can only take so much before it overflows with the stuff that we don’t want and can’t be bothered to recycle.

I’m amazed at how sophisticated and restrictive we are in the UK about where and what we can quarry for our roads; where we’ll allow a wind turbine to be placed; and how careful we are to properly sort and recycle our rubbish, then remediate our scarred landscapes. We have a lot of first-world dilemmas, which we address with responsible, first-world solutions. My local council recycles 80 per cent of household waste, producing methane-powered electricity, compost and recyclates. Companies such as Veolia are digging up existing landfill to mine it for metals and plastics.

On the whole, it seems we care about the impact our lifestyle has on our British landscape and what we can see. That’s part of our first-world myopia. We care less about the impact bought goods have on the welfare of the people and environment in other countries, because we can’t see it. This is why Fairtrade coffee importers put photos of happy Guatemalan farmers on packaging – so we can see them. Good for them. I wish a few furniture importers would follow their lead.

The biggest unseen effect on environment, however, is one that we pollute, exploit and pillage without mercy; one that is ruthlessly trashed by rich and poor nations alike – the sea. Nearly three billion humans (and growing) now rely on seafood as a major source of protein (a large proportion of us live within 100 kilometres of a coastline), and as a result, fish numbers have collapsed. Total marine vertebrate populations have declined by half since 1970, and many species face extinction. We are turning our blue planet into a barren, watery wasteland – and we don’t see it. The world’s tropical reefs have lost half their living coral in 30 years; 1.2 million square kilometres of ocean bed have been licensed for mining, while around five trillion pieces of plastic and thousands of tons of agricultural run-off are turning the world’s seas into a toxic soup.

In January, the Government’s announcement of 23 new Marine Conservation Zones (bringing the total to 50, covering some 20,000 square kilometres) was met with scepticism: zones are not managed, therefore life within them can’t be protected. In other parts of the world, conservation zones are rare or non-existent: just 3.4 per cent of the oceans are protected. WWF’s Living Blue Planet report of last year highlighted the serious decay of the planet’s seas, while also bringing our attention to the way in which we depend on them for livelihoods, resources and food, stating observantly that ‘humanity continues to make unsustainable demands on nature, threatening our long-term well-being and prosperity’.

We are not far-sighted. It’s a shame that we are shielded from the impact our lives have on this world. The effects aren’t just felt in the Indian Ocean, where fish stocks have been exploited to feed the growing local population – they resonate around the globe. If only we could see the devastation we wreak in pursuit of that shiny resin bathtub (which could have been made with recycled plastics), or that leather sofa dyed in a factory that pollutes a river delta in another country, we might demand our world be put together in a more sustainable and sensible way. So let me ask you: how can we see more clearly?

Image: Neil Howard

Kevins Column

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