Individual responsibility in protecting our common home

Society has barely scratched the surface: much more should be done to save the ecosystem

Water lily stalks - BENEDICT LOPEZ

By Joseph Lopez

Without exception, every human activity adversely affects the environment. The degradation of our environment continues unabated and has increased in recent years.

Much needs to be done quickly to mitigate the degradation of the earth, our common home. Though we have made some progress, it is still far from adequate.


We have heard a lot about environmental degradation at COP27, the UN climate summit, held in Egypt on 6-18 November. Speeches were made by the great and the good, often with evangelical zeal.

Participants repeated the dire consequences we would face if we did not sufficiently tackle our environmental problems. They engaged in hard bargaining, struck deals, made promises (which often will not be kept) and heaped blame on others, especially the rich nations.

Island nations once again reminded us of their existential threat resulting from rising sea levels.

But as expected, the self-interest of individual countries also prevailed.

Yet, we are at least talking about the problem. It is easy to despair, but we must hope that some good will come out of all this.

Environmental damage

Environmental degradation contributes to climate change. They are the root cause of a significant burden of morbidity and mortality. This is particularly the case in developing countries.

The resulting impact is estimated to cause about 25% of all deaths and diseases globally, reaching nearly 35% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Children under five seem to bear the largest environmental burden.

So all individuals and organisations have a societal obligation to do their part to ease the harm they do to the environment.

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The key environmental consequence of human activity and especially energy usage is global warming.

Hard scientific evidence for it is overwhelming. Global warming has caused the melting of polar ice caps, resulting in rising sea levels – an existential threat to many small island states and coastal communities.

Some of these places could cease to exist and many local economies will be destroyed. Soon, we can expect to see climate change refugees, if that has not already happened.

Global warming will continue to produce ecological changes and inflict more droughts and floods. As ever, the poorest will be the hardest hit. Disease patterns will change: epidemics and diseases once seen only in the warmer countries will head northwards.

Besides global warming, environmental degradation also involves the loss of irreplaceable resources, a reduction of biodiversity with increasing species extinction, and atmospheric pollution.

The growing consumption of energy and water and the production of heat aggravates the problem.

The ever-increasing production of waste and the resultant contamination of sites at landfills and runoff to the seas will continue to poison plants, animals and marine life.

These dire predictions of climate change are real and well documented. They are not speculations. We need to act decisively, and act now.

What we need to do

Both governments and individuals have a crucial responsibility to keep environmental degradation to a minimum. In Malaysia the environment has received some attention but much more can and should be done.

The approach to better environmental practices should be two-fold. First, it should be top-down through legislation and its enforcement. Equally important is a bottom-up approach by instilling a strong sense of responsibility for the environment in every individual.

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Individual responsibility and action

Few are conscious of how they individually contribute to environmental degradation. Many are unaware of the three basic components of good environmental practices (GEP): reduce, reuse and recycle.

They are also unaware of concepts such as carbon footprint, their consumption of the earth’s precious and limited resources, and the waste they individually produce.

Their failure to realise the harm they do to the environment is often because of a lack of awareness.

We must thus embed GEP in the minds of everyone in the same way we stress the importance of brushing their teeth. There should be frequent reminders and regular media campaigns to promote GEP.

The teaching of GEP should begin at home, from an early age. Parents have a very important role to play by teaching, talking about it and setting the right example. It should be a part of the school curriculum.

The internet is replete with ways by which individuals can become more environmentally friendly. We must educate people to reduce consumption in absolute terms wherever possible.

Some suggestions:

  • Reduce to a minimum your consumption of energy (electricity), water and detergents
  • When you buy something new, ask yourselves if it is really necessary
  • Where possible, consider the use of previously used (or “pre-loved”) items and do not be shy about it
  • Try to resell or give away items when they are no longer needed
  • Reduce or repurpose consumables, where possible
  • Avoid using plastics as far as possible, as they cannot be recycled or naturally degraded in the environment; they last forever, fill up landfills and pollute the air with toxic gases when incinerated
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Organisational responsibility and action

Both individuals and NGOs can engage in bottom-up advocacy.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Put pressure on manufacturers to be more friendly in their manufacturing practices. Lobby your local authority, state assembly member and MP on environmental issues
  • Target low-hanging fruit, such as a reduction in using plastics, through legislation
  • Create an awareness of the individual’s societal responsibility through advocacy and education. Education and advocacy by governments, NGOs, schools and individuals are essential
  • Local governments should organise recycling campaigns and organise waste separation for households
  • Office managements should become more environmentally conscious. They should try reducing the consumption of electricity through the use of motion-sensor lighting where possible. They can reduce the use of paper and encourage double-sided printing. Managements can incentivise staff who engage in GEP

While there has been much improvement in GEP in recent years, it has barely scratched the surface. Much more can and should be done to protect our common home.

The writer is a retired research scientist and university lecturer who has previously published on environmental matters, especially relating to the clinical laboratory. He thinks individuals can do a lot more to mitigate environmental degradation

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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