You know that feeling you get when you see something that has HUGE potential?
It's really exciting, making your pulse quicken and inviting you to get involved; but it's also disconcerting, worrying even, because you really really don't want to see it ruined. I was fortunate enough to spend my winter holidays in Oman, a country that to me, represents that situation. I love Oman, it is a spectacular country physically, with a very rich cultural heritage, and an honest and friendly people. There are locations and experiences to be had in Oman that really do feel genuinely magical. It's not every day that you go somewhere that has that. However, I worry about the future of this special nation...
My concern for Oman's future is tied to my concern for Oman's environment. Despite large areas still being relatively rural, and an intense pride in the Omani people of their country, attitudes towards environmental preservation are less than ideal. To some, even the notion of going out of one's way to do something about waste is simply too boring to contemplate. This is obviously worse in cities where the rise in consumerism and throwaway culture is most acute. But these attitudes are percolating into the rural communities too. In remote corners and villages it is now not uncommon to see heaps of plastic and other litter. Fences have become the rubbish filters for some landscapes. There is an invasion of litter, but we all know that litter doesn't just "appear", people leave it there...
Why are people littering? "It's not difficult to take your litter with you" I hear you say. I would agree, and I'm not an expert, but I think that there are multiple reasons why litter is on the increase globally. It could be down to a lack of infrastructure to appropriately deal with the demands of a changing population. This in turn could be because environmental awareness is not, and has not been given high enough priority in educational curricula. Perhaps culturally things have changed, and people have forgotten to feel shame about rubbish. I know that I say this as someone who lives in the UK, and that there are places that are far better and more advanced in their waste awareness and practices than the UK... Germany for example!
Littering is just one facet of a much larger and more complex environmental situation and I think that I see Oman as a metaphor for the world at large this coming year. It is on a the verge of much larger changes. Over the last year, millions of people worldwide have been affected by some 150 major environmental disasters. Chennai, in India, has seen the worst floods in over 100 years. Catastrophic flooding, tornados, and typhoons hit the Philippines, Myanmar, Mozambique, Malawi and the United States. Heatwaves claimed thousands of lives in India and Pakistan, while in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan a severe drought continues to crush the livelihood of farmers. Brazil made the headlines when toxic mining waste spilled into the main river in the city of Mariana, in Minas Gerais state, devastated a nearby village. Similarly, Argentina was in the spotlight with the spill of thousands of gallons of toxic cyanide into Potrerillos River. The list of disasters is frightening, and I've not even gone into the effects of the mass migration crisis.
You may say that the picture looks bleak, and in some respects it really does, but there are changes afoot that give me reason to be hopeful. There is a lot of potential for positive change, and the story isn't over yet! The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris was a definite step in the right direction for world leaders. Naysayers argue that the promises made will all be too little too late, but I for one feel that at least environmental issues are on the agenda! It is time to make a change and, in an age where more information is available to more people than ever before – and when the boundaries to technology, innovation and enterprise are also at record lows – people are making a change.
Last year, category winners for some of London Design museum's prestigious "Designs of the Year" awards went to candidates who were tackling environmental issues head on. From food wastage highlighted by Intermarché's campaign, to Boyan Slat's "The Ocean Cleanup" project, to Google's self driving car. In the Philippines, some groups are taking up legal action against fossil fuel companies accused of driving climate change. Change is definitely afoot and Oman, like the rest of the world, needs to learn from the collective experience of all other nations, and needs to plan carefully for its future.
With the dawn of the new year comes another chance to renew hopes for a better life and a better world. My trip to Oman has helped me define one of my resolutions for the new year: to be more mindful of our planet. There are no excuses, we are all in this together and everyone needs to try to do their part as best they can. We must remember that we are the drivers of that positive potential, so let's make it count.