Abuja, Nigeria: June 5th is marked by the United Nations as World Environment Day, and a day observed by over 154 countries in the world. The Day is marked by seminars, conferences, walks, cleanup exercises and other events. The theme of this year’s environmental event is Beat Plastic Pollution.
I first came in contact with the “Environmental Movement” ten years ago in 2008. I had won a state-wide quiz competition organized by the government to mark World Environment Day. The prizes were presented by the Governor of my State at a lecture event on the 5th of June 2008. The guest lecturer spoke passionately about the environment and how we all had roles to play to preserve it for the children, yet unborn. Afterwards, we received our prizes, listened to more speeches and all departed. Months after, what came to mind about that day was not the environment but rather the event, who attended, what happened and when the next one would come around.
In the last few years, as I have progressively grown more interested in the environment, I have come to notice a pattern with such celebrations. After the walks, the speeches and other activities of the day, people, institutions and governments lapse back to their original positions and dispositions about the environment. Communiques are forgotten, resolutions fade and commitments are postponed. In the midst of all these activities, there is the tendency to focus on the activities and events marking the day and consign the actual purpose of the event to the background.
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I believe that a lot of this is a result of the conception that crises such as climate change and plastic pollution that affect the environment are victimless crises. Thus, we don’t really pay the same attention as we do other “more pressing” or “critical” issues. The reason for this isn’t hard to fathom. Most people can point to a relative or friend who has suffered from cancer, or who has been a victim of gun violence. But a victim of an environmental crisis? That’s harder to find.
When we do find such victims, the culprit is usually not the environmental crises that we have created. The heat wave is not really caused by global warming. And the floods? It’s just rain and nature, such things happen. So, why make drastic changes in our lifestyle? It’s not like the way we live now is really hurting anybody, right?
But it is. Sadly, there are victims. According to the United Nations, all over the world, an average of 22.5 million people have been displaced yearly by climate and weather-related incidents and natural disasters between 2008 to 2017. These numbers do not take into account the people who have died, been physically deformed or suffered indirectly from factors created by the environmental crises. These are real people, with families, dreams and hopes.
In 2016 when I visited Lagos, Nigeria, I stayed in an area close to the Atlantic Ocean. I could hear the crash of the waves each night and I enjoyed my quiet walks on the beach. This was in no way a high-brow area or in any form a beachfront estate. These were small houses and shanties scattered haphazardly along the waterfront.
On my third day on the beach after I nearly fell when tripped by a brick while walking, I realized that I was walking on buildings that had been swallowed by the ocean and the beach. I noticed abandoned buildings around but I had never quite made the connection, until that moment. There were three-storey buildings that had been swallowed up to the second floors before the occupants abandoned their homes. I chatted with a few locals who lived in the nearby shanties and they admitted, with twinges of nostalgia, that they had lived in those sunken houses long before the water took over possession from them.
As the world marks the 2018 World Environment Day, I hope we remember these people. I hope we do not just tell the stories of what the developed countries (which, let’s be honest, are responsible for a fair share of the environmental crises we now face as one global village) are doing to salvage the environment. I hope we do more than just listen. I hope we find our voices. I hope we speak. I hope we tell our own stories. I hope we remember the lost ones.
I hope we choose life for our environment today.
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