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Op-ed: Do you have a minute to talk about the environment?

For most U of T students, unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no”
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Amalie Wilkinson (left) and Anna Clark (right) outside of Sidney Smith Hall. COURTESY OF LEXI NEWBIGIN
Amalie Wilkinson (left) and Anna Clark (right) outside of Sidney Smith Hall. COURTESY OF LEXI NEWBIGIN

On December 1, members of Stop Ecocide Toronto stood outside Sidney Smith Hall. We sought to raise awareness about ‘ecocide’ — massive environmental destruction — and the proposal to make it an international crime. We offered flyers and asked if people had a moment to chat as they walked by.

The reaction? Most people averted their gaze and hurried away.

As university students at one of the premier institutions in Canada, you might expect those entering Sidney Smith Hall to be interested in the environment. Their relative youth, at least basic education about the climate crisis, and residence in a supposedly ‘climate-progressive’ country all point toward some element of interest or worry about the future. But in asking whether people had time to talk about the environment, we became invisible to the majority of passersby.

Why this response? There are a few obvious possibilities. They may have been late for class or some other engagement. They may not have wanted to talk to random strangers offering them flyers. Or, they simply didn’t care.

Unfortunately, none of these reasons are sufficient. It is unlikely that lateness can account for the people strolling down St. George Street at 10:32 am on a Wednesday, drinking a cup of coffee or chatting with their friends. I would also hesitate to say that passersby would be intimidated by three young environmentalists with cheery smiles and free doughnuts.

I further find it hard to believe that U of T students are not interested in solving environmental destruction. They may want to end deforestation, oil spills, or carbon emissions, but the question is: what cost are they willing to pay?

This leads me to conclude that people shy away from street-side environmental conversations for a fourth reason. The benefits of such conversations are outweighed by other, more pressing commitments: studying, clubs, working on other social issues, jobs, or going to the gym.

None of this is intended to cast shame on those who did not stop. Rather, I hope to highlight a fundamentally uncomfortable — and, frankly, self-destructive — feature of our society: our tendency to put environmental issues on the back burner, prioritizing our short-term interests over long-term sustainability. 

Scientists around the globe have known for many decades that we are facing a climate crisis. Global warming disrupts weather systems, increasing droughts, fires, storms, floods, and other environmental disasters. Most Canadians recognize that climate change is occurring and are concerned about its impacts. The earth’s temperature is rising rapidly, and we are reaching a point of no return terrifyingly quickly.

Simultaneously, we face a biodiversity crisis — in part due to the climate crisis and also due to separate but inextricably linked practices of ecosystem and habitat destruction.

Today, humanity faces a common risk of extinction. So why is this impending, irrevocable disaster not at the forefront of our every conversation, a factor in our every decision? I don’t have the answers here. It is clear, though, that we have developed a culture that facilitates and even promotes industrial activity — a culture that does not prioritize environmental concerns.

The good news is that, in my opinion, it is not too late to change course. The ideas needed to save our planet exist: innovative methods of recycling, laws against ecocide, clean energy technologies, sustainable agriculture, and so much more. There is a way, but we need a will. 

We must reconceive nature as an entity with rights, as deserving of our attention and care. We must see the environmental crisis for what it is: an extinction-level threat. 

So, I ask everyone reading this: do you have a minute to talk about the environment? I hope we can get to a place where every single person answers, “Yes.”

Amalie Wilkinson is a second-year international relations and peace, conflict and justice studies student at University College. They are the founder and director of Stop Ecocide Toronto, a local chapter of the international Stop Ecocide movement.