The importance of communicating the value of healthy landscapes (and clean teeth) by Waas Thissen

GLF 2017 Blog Competition
Waas Thissen

My eyes had to adapt to the light again. The small talk started.

Carefully, I replied to my dentist that I was currently studying International Land & Water Management at Wageningen University.

‘Never head of such a thing’.

Somehow I always feel awkward explaining the why, what, and how of what I am studying to somebody who has no clue. Especially when it is ought to be done within a one minute reply that is tailored to the implicit social rules of small-talk. I could tell my dentist my honest motivations and knowledge. Basically, the largest part of my one minute would be endowed to a doomsday story about how the we are demolishing our planet to the extent it can no longer sustain us. There are two scenarios possible concerning the impact such a story could have on my dentist: 1). she might not take it seriously; and 2). In the case she does, it could scare the wits out of her, which usually results in a ‘freeze’ reaction (just ignore it). Obviously not what I was aiming for either. Self-Censorship: perhaps it’s prudence; perhaps cowardliness. 
Despite my reasons not to, deep down I do really want to tell her. Because, truly I think it is so important.

For the last couple of years, I strongly doubted whether my interest in sustainable management of land and water would ever find its way out of my mind and into the world. City dwellers like my family, my friends, let alone my dentist; would they understand? After all, soil is synonymous to dirt. Water is just a commodity. A tree is something that you can find in the city park. Right?

In our daily lives we do not see the consequences of our actions on the landscape. That is especially true for us city dwellers. And even if we are aware of global processes and their gravity, the spatial and temporal scale at which they play are incongruous with the one and a half hour travel and 8 hour shift belonging to our day-to-day job. This is the reason why many people have never considered the existence of a two year masters degree that basically involves studying landscapes.

My dentist probably knows about climate change. Perhaps my dentist even knows we have climate goals, agreed on in the UNFCC’s COP21 in Paris. But my dentists probably doesn’t know that the UN also hosts conventions on desertification, the UNCCD, and on biodiversity, the UNCBD. And I feel confident enough to say that my dentist has absolutely no idea that 2015 was declared by the UN as the year of the soil.

This inclusion of landscapes in policy is not a given. The last decades, environmentalists, policymakers, and popular environmental writers have worked hard to stress the many important functions of soils: it produced our food, it cleans our water, and it has the capability to store large amounts of greenhouse gases, giving it a vital role in the climate system, among many other functions. These functions are providing us with the essential ecosystem services that we depend upon.

Knowing this makes it more clear why studying landscapes is something to consider. It emphasizes the importance of healthy landscapes. And perhaps you already saw it coming: it’s not going so well with the world landscapes. In fact, most of them are strongly degraded under human influence. Despite of our complete reliance on that thin skin of the earth, we still treat our soils like dirt. Despite the fact that water could become something to wage war over in the near future, we still fill our swimming pools. Despite the fact that forests contribute greatly to the production of the oxygen we breathe, we still cut trees to replace them with cattle-destined soy.

So far, I’ve told my family the value of healthy landscapes. But my dentist is still unaware. What should I tell her? That soils are eroding faster and faster? That rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate? That polar caps are melting faster than we previously thought? How stories on environmental issues are conveyed is essential. Only imprinting fear is not a way forward; the fear causes disbelief (cognitive dissonance) or immobilizes us, as a recent opinion article in the guardian stressed. Other stories need to be told. Progressive writers understand this. Someone who understands this well is Naomi Klein, who not only offers the hard cold truth about the situation that humanity is currently in, but also offers future perspectives and tangible goals that can motivate us to start building a better future tomorrow.

That is why the relevance of projects showing alternatives are so important. Tangible actual alternatives are still unbeaten in communicating the importance of healthy landscapes. They are the living truth that it is possible to restore degraded landscapes. A recent public campaign by the Dutch NGO Justdiggit is a good example. Their campaign focusses on showing the possible impact of a desertified landscape on the one hand, but simultaneously offers people a better future perspective that shows that a different way of doing things is possible, and most important – that it is already happening. ‘If we can warm earth, we can also cool it’ is their slogan.

My dentists told me that if I wouldn’t be careful, I would risk getting cavities. It scared me. She also showed me how to prevent it. I then felt motivated to start taking better care of my teeth.

In order to steer this world to a brighter future, stories that inspire us and allow us to envision are essential. And such stories are best told when they are stories of actual, ‘we can do it’, change.

So let’s start doing it and let’s start sharing it.

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