More often than not, out of sheer passion and genuine concern for humanity’s survival, scientists and environmentalists can feel a sense of urgency to inform their audiences of the consequences of our current actions toward the planet’s resources; some might even argue that we’re past the point of no return. However, such a declaration can make people like you and I feel helpless and excluded. Luckily for us though, passionate, realistic, and conscientious environmental health experts can help us focus on the solutions, ask the right questions, and take baby steps toward positive consequences in our day-to-day lives.

Scientist and conservation practitioner Dr. Erik Meijaard, an honorary professor in conservation science with a focus on tropical species conservation and agriculture, has thirty years of experience in orangutan conservation in Indonesia, and has done extensive work with the palm oil sector to reconcile biodiversity conservation and agricultural production objectives. Dr. Meijaard shares with us his take on sustainability and the actions that we can take to promote a better future.

#1 Consumerism

The renowned researcher speaks to us about conscious consumption, identifying our purchasing behaviors as one of the fundamental tools we can utilize to prevent further damage to the climate, as well as inspire global change toward developing a healthier and greener environment. Placing consumerism in the spotlight, Dr. Meijaard conveys it as a notion that appeals to our choices and needs. To help us make better choices, we can ask ourselves whether an item is something that we need: Is it an essential? Or is it an item, or even a service, that we can sacrifice?

One way to look at this can be found when it comes to our decisions regarding public transportation. If a person’s workplace is near to their home, cycling can be a nice way to commute, instead of going by car. But, if their workplace is on the other side of town, it would be impractical to ask them to cycle all the way there! The idea of being responsible with our choices can also be reflected when we purchase fruits and vegetables that are grown seasonally and locally. By doing so, we take a responsive measure to support the green movement in limiting food that needs to be transported from long-distances, and food that needs to be grown in greenhouses. This comes with the added side perk of promoting local economic balance!

#2 Rich Power Intervention

Dr. Meijaard tells us how “rich power,” or countries of the “Global North,” carry much of the responsibility to encourage and implement the needed measures to promote change. What does rich power refer to, you ask?

Let’s draw a mental chart! On one hand, you’ve got developed countries, those with a stable and higher economic status considered to be past their industrial phase, which qualifies a high-income status. On the other hand, you’ve got developing countries with a developing economies status, which means they’re still in their industrial phase, and have the added burden of foreign companies of the Global North placing their industries on their land. Essentially, this implies that countries of the Global North have an ecological impact that is far greater than those of the Global South, added to the fact that the former’s resources and opportunities to be sustainable are wider.

The main emphasis here, though, is to draw attention to the fact that countries of the Global South tend to have higher poverty rates. So at this point, they’re just looking to cover their basic human needs; they can’t be asked to sacrifice more than they already are. From his realistic perspective, Dr. Meijaard considers the ethics of asking people who are in need to cut certain foods out of their diets, stressing that an “individual’s rights” must be preserved and protected. In other words, it would be unethical to ask people who rarely ever have access to a well-balanced meal to cut out meat and dairy products, for example, as their bodies are already in need of the nutrients these foods provide.

Therefore, the responsibility mainly lies with the high-income countries, who have the privilege of considering consumerism in their lives, as well as “assessing the way [the West] lives, grows, and spends”. Dr. Meijaard stresses that a salvation plan for our planet is only feasible if the Western countries (certain European countries, such as Iceland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) can unite and come together as a society, “to turn things around”. Dr. Meijaard notes that positive trends have quite recently emerged in terms of the changing perception regarding sustainability. The scholar exemplifies it, through the recent attitude that some companies, as well as some governments, have started to adopt.

This idea brings us to another vital aspect, that of community forest management, which promotes the preservation of the rights of local communities to weight in on decisions relating to forestry and land use. During his talk with us, Dr. Meijaard explains that this notion can be a tad “romanticized” as it often “depends on context, leadership, how strongly structured the communities are, [and] how much transparency is there within the communities.”

However, with the increasing rate of deforestation in focus, governments, companies, and even societies can play a crucial role by assessing their approach and dictating the actions that can be adapted in the hope of mitigating inflicted damage and thwarting future ecological harm. If we look at oil palm production, for instance, Dr. Meijaard notes the key role that industries can play in global supply chains, stressing that palm oil is one of the most efficient, and relatively cheap oil crops, in comparison to its alternatives. So, when countries of higher-income pursue banning its production, it can massively affect those who make a living out of producing it, and those who rely on it as their primary source of fat.

#3 Awareness and Inclusion

When asked about his recommendation to the people who strive to nurture their environmental health, as well as the health of the environment, on a day to day basis, Dr. Meijaard highlights the importance of awareness.

He suggests raising awareness around seeking new opportunities to restore balance between land use and poverty. Finding the right balance would mean that 75% of global rural areas battling poverty could potentially earn their living back again. Dr. Meijaard states that, while the current situation is not ideal, he’s hopeful and optimistic that with an on-going pursuit for the appropriate solutions, “a lot can be achieved.”

In terms of raising awareness about conservation management, Dr. Meijaard tells us that it all comes down to the “quality of management,” regardless of who is responsible for driving the awareness, be it a government, company, or even individuals in a community. As long as someone is able to provide “good quality of management,” the goal would be achieved. It’s all about raising awareness of the appropriate techniques and “the conditions that need to be met”in other words, nurturing best practices in both industry and conservation. This can be necessary and transformative for anyone who would like to be included, who wants to have an idea of where to start, or who’s looking to learn how to foster a healthy attitude toward the environment.  

Lastly, we can’t forget the impact of raising awareness about our individual choices – we have every right to choose A instead of B, but it’s important to recognize the consequences of choosing A, and, likewise, the consequences of choosing B. Identifying the effects of our choices is one thing, but considering the world we’re going to leave behind for the generations to come is another. It’s important to raise awareness about the possibilities of what we can leave behind, just as it is important to consider the consequences humanity may be forced to deal with.

After our talk with Dr. Erik Meijaard, it’s clear that it all boils down to one thing: appealing to our sensible side. Choices are a tricky thing, because our choices are what either help create balance, or cause imbalance. Assessing our behaviors as consumers, while maintaining a practical and realistic mindset should be at the forefront of our decision making process. Sacrifices that need to be made are already enforced on communities across the globe, so working together to find the ways to restore balance couldn’t come at a better time. We believe in the conscientious side in you! For more tips and tricks on how to be a conscious consumer and care for our planet, make sure to check out the Holisticly Environmental Health Journeys!