The goal of our Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Europe Section Blog is to share stories and relevant information about activities going on within our section and more broadly in the conservation community. Stories and articles shared on our blog should not be taken as an official position or statement of SCB or SCB Europe Section. Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Are we ready to admit personal responsibility for our environmental impact?

Guest post by Alwin Hardenbol, Student Blog Contest Series 

Let us start bleak. Each and every one of us has an environmental impact on this planet. Some less, some more. To reduce this impact, we need proper information and a desire to reduce it. While we can find lots of information on the internet, many do not have the desire to look for it. Not just for you as a reader, but also for me as the writer of this article. There are people that see value in taking action to reduce their impact and then there are people who argue that mere individuals are not going to change anything on the levels that are required. In my opinion, both are true. I can use the argument that if all humans on this planet think “my actions don’t matter” then it is about time to cooperate and work together to lessen our environmental impact.  On the other side, I can argue that corporations and governments should take more responsibility. However, while they certainly have a moral responsibility to improve their environmental considerations, they are a representation of the desires of the public. The public who often vote with their wallet in mind, choosing political parties who are more concerned with the success of corporations than the environment. If we show a clearer desire to reduce our individual environmental impacts, then they may take notice. However, apart from trying to influence governments and large corporations, there is really just a need for you and I to reduce our individual footprints, before we reach a point of no return.

Coming back to the desire to change personal behaviour, I will be clear about one thing; I would be a hypocrite if I did not note that I also need to change my behaviour further still. I drive my car too much sometimes; I still eat meat once or twice a week and so on. Nevertheless, there are many things I do not do, perhaps have never even done in my life, and there are also many changes I have made based on the information I have gathered. I am not asking you to change everything today, but step by step. You also do not have to force yourself to change a certain habit if it makes you too uncomfortable. Us environmentalists often take a moral high ground and put climate-change deniers to shame, but we cannot shame people into changing their behaviour. We need to give them the information and a certain freedom to choose. This should be within boundaries of course, as some issues require rapid changes in order to avoid a species going extinct. A good example of this is overfishing (think of the Vaquita in Mexico). Allowing criticism of oneself is important here and that is a very difficult task. But once you allow personal criticism then you are able to see the flaws in your environmental impact and you can try your best to change.

There are many individual impacts that we can consider, some more important than others. However, it is hard to weight the impact of certain actions against each other. Below, I address four issues that I think require further action by the public that we do not often focus on as much as things like plastic pollution and climate change. 
Responsible pet ownership with a focus on cats

Pets are not native species that belong in the wild. Because of irresponsible pet ownership, we have many non-native, sometimes invasive species, threatening our native wildlife. There are also many pets that are still under our care, but are left to roam outdoors and disturb native wildlife. The biggest such issue is cats. It is an issue that we need to resolve together. Fearing severe backlash from cat owners, the government is unable to step in in many cases, and NGOs are often forced to stay quiet about it for the same reason. However, the science is rather clear, despite the lack of a Europe-wide study. There are studies from the UK, Poland, Sweden, the US, Australia, and many islands across the globe that discuss this issue. Detailed studies show cats are the number one cause of death in birds in the U.S. and Canada (this ignores more indirect impacts such as habitat loss). Keep in mind that this includes feral cats, which are highly prevalent in the U.S. With ‘kittycams’ in the U.S. placed on domestic cats, the numbers of prey were measured at 2 prey items per 7 days per cat. Multiply that by the millions of cats we own in Europe (13.7 million for Germany alone in 2017 for example) it results in extremely high numbers of casualties, mainly mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Estimates from the UK show that 275 million prey items are taken every year. In addition, domestic cats in the US are often kept indoors at all times, a stark contrast to what we do in Europe. In Poland, where cats are largely kept outside as farm mousers, a recent study has estimated that just cats at farmsteads could be responsible for the death of 583 million mammals and 135 million birds annually. 
What can be done about this?  Keep in mind, I am only considering cats that are in the care of an owner; defined as domestic cats. The best solution would be to keep your cat indoors at all times and take your cat for walks on a leash, like you would a dog. Alternatively, you could build an outdoor cat enclosure if you want them to be able to enjoy the outdoors more consistently. While I want to stress the importance of the best solution, if you as a cat-owner refuse this solution, then there are some alternatives to consider that are at least better for the native fauna. For one, you can keep your cat indoors during the birds’ breeding season, especially when the chicks are learning to fly as they are easily targeted. Secondly, you could keep your cat inside at night (starting at dusk) as many mammals, reptiles and amphibians scurry about at night. Finally, when you leave your cat to go outdoors attach a bell or bib to their collar so that it might make a sound and scare away the animal they are trying to kill.


Beautiful gardens full of colour, with lots of stone paving and tiles to walk on, devoid of weeds and pests, are lovely. But how beautiful is this garden to native wildlife? Green spaces in urban areas can house a considerable amount of biodiversity, although it is usually the smaller critters, which go unnoticed. Private gardens form a large part of these urban green spaces. If you treat your private garden well, a host of biodiversity, like mammals, birds and amphibians may even visit. These days, we like to include lots of tiles and stone pavement in our gardens. However, this removes any potential for native wildlife to visit or live in that area. The solution? Allow more green spaces in your garden. But what kind of green spaces should you leave? It’s rather complex to garden in an ecologically sustainable way but an easy thing to do is to think about what native plants you could include in your garden. Collectively, we have introduced lots of non-native, invasive plant and insect species in Europe. This is often a result of gardening and the desire to have exotic, pretty looking flowers in our gardens. To avoid introducing more of these species, or spread the distribution ranges of present ones further, it is important to have mostly native species in our gardens. However, some non-native plant species can still be beneficial to biodiversity. The benefit of native plants in your garden is that native insects have adapted to these plants and are much more likely to visit. It is most important to choose plants that combined, flower for as long as possible, from spring to autumn. The Royal Horticultural Society in the UK has made a nice list of many other actions, large and small, that you can take to improve the biodiversity and ecological value of your garden.  

Certified products

For the average consumer the variety of ecologically certified products can seem overwhelming. There are at least 237 different environment-focused certificates in Europe alone. Keeping track of every certificate is impossible. Getting to know a few that are important to you is a good start.
The range of ecologically certified products is immense (from wood products to composted waste) but I’m just going to focus on commonly used food/drink items like coffee, tea, chocolate, fruits and seafood. All these products have a potentially large ecological footprint and the certificates associated with these products are relatively well known. They come from the Rainforest Alliance, MSC, UTZ, and Fairtrade, who aim to minimize the ecological strain directly or indirectly, as is the Fairtrade certificate. Using products with a specific certificate helps to build the brand of the certificate and promotes new standards for the producers and retailers.
Certificates are not limited to seafood and tropical areas. There are also specific certificates for locally produced goods in Europe, for example, produce that is organically farmed (which receives the EU organic logo). Moreover, there are ecological certificates for chemicals, hygiene products, clothes, tourism services and so on. Just getting to know a few of them at a time, does certainly make a difference. However, certificates should not be regarded as flawless and controversies over them have often been raised by ecologists.

Collecting wildflowers and herbs

I would also like to address an issue that pertains to the over-collection of wildflowers and herbs.  Two examples are the collection of Sideritis scardica for the production of ‘mountain tea’, and orchids of different species from the Orchis genus to make salep flour; this flour is used to mainly make a traditional beverage but also desserts. I am half Greek, so I recognize how popular these drinks are in Greece and surrounding countries.  However, they come at a cost to the environment, which many people are unaware of or simply ignore. When drinking tea or salep, just like you are with what you eat, try to be aware of where it comes from and what the potential environmental cost is. These plants are collected in the wild illegally. The lack of enforcement of these laws means it is up to us as individuals to stand up against these practices. Since Sideritis scardica is also cultivated, and synthetic alternatives to salep exist on the market, there are easy solutions within our reach. It just requires an active change in behaviour by us all.
I hope that this article gives you the motivation to think about your own impact on the environment, and perhaps make a few behavioural changes. While I mentioned just a few issues, there are sadly many more, and we each have an effect on them.

Issue 1 (Responsible pet ownership with a focus on cats):
FAQ from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the US:
Kittycam project in the US:
Effect of cats in Poland:

About the Author

Alwin Hardenbol is an Early Stage Researcher doing a PhD in forest ecology at the School of Forest Sciences at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu.

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