Air Quality News spoke to environmental campaigner Ben Fogle about accusations of hypocrisy, moving his family out of London due to air pollution and why we need to get back to basics to rescue our troubled environment.
From the lush mountains of Thailand to the remotest reaches of the Arctic, it’s fair to say Ben Fogle has more experience than most in breathing the world’s cleanest air.
But when he’s not travelling the world, his here and now experience of life in London is no different from the 8.9 million other people who inhabit the city.
‘My children go to school under the Westway and it’s off the scale in how bad the air quality is,’ he says. ‘As a parent, you can’t help but worry. We’re actually moving out of the city and it’s one of the reasons. I want my children to have a healthier start in life.’
Fogle is one of the UK’s most well-known environmentalists, making television programmes from every corner of the globe, but his own carbon footprint is something he’s wrestling with.
‘It’s probably important to headline this chat and talk about the elephant in the room – by making these shows I’m creating an air pollution problem myself with my air travel,’ he says. ‘I’m the first one to admit my own failings and shortcomings. My work over 20 years has involved a great deal of air travel.’
‘It’s the only way I’ve been able to get efficiently and economically to faraway places in order to make the shows. But there’s an ironic hypocrisy going to New Zealand to make a film about Extinction Rebellion activists who are trying to save the planet, whilst I have my own negative impact.’
As part of his role as an ambassador for the government and industry electric vehicle campaign, Go Ultra Low, his family has converted to an electric vehicle. He says it’s a small thing his family is doing to improve air quality, but it’s a frustration that he still receives criticism for it.
‘There’s a notion of accusing people or picking people up for their shortcomings, rather than celebrating the positive contributions they give, which is slightly disingenuous,’ he says.
‘But sometimes you have to make the least-worst decision. That’s sometimes where you have to go in life. Too many people are seeking perfection and perfection smothers progress. If we tried to only make the decisions that have a 100% positive change, then we’re not going to convince anyone.’
Anyone who has taken a look at social media following a freak weather event, or even listened to the President of the United States talk about climate change, will see how polarising the environment seems to be now, where ‘winning’ the argument has become all-important. Fogle says it’s making people afraid to make positive environmental changes in their lives, for fear of criticism.
‘I’m slightly saddened that environmentalism has become so polarised and politicised,’ he says.
‘For years it was the stuff of scientists making scientific warnings and people who felt passionate about nature acting on it.’
‘Now, if you dare to put your head above the parapet, you stand to be accused of hypocrisy or being a tree hugger. It’s one extreme or another. That’s not helpful for anyone.’
‘We need to listen to all of those in the middle. The extreme arguments are so loud and so vocal that the sensible folk in the middle are lost in the din of all the shouting. I don’t think that’s helpful to the cause and it doesn’t empower people.’
‘People are too scared because they might be called a hypocrite. Or they don’t like to be told how to change their lives. They want to make that decision on their own terms.’
It could be argued that the environmental schism that we have seen over the past few years was catapulted with Extinction Rebellion’s provocative headline-grabbing stunts.
Fogle says the ‘doom-mongering’ and ‘guilt-making’ was an important way to start the conversation but the movement needs to do more to positively convince people to make changes in their lives, however small.
‘I think if we empower people rather than reduce them to anxious wrecks, we’re likely to get more done,’ he says. ‘Empowerment breeds optimism and determination. That’s what we need as a global worldwide population of 7.5 billion to get things done.’
‘I don’t stand up hectoring people saying “you must drive an electric car!” I’m sharing my own experiences to empower people to make a similar change to their life.
‘We have to take personal responsibility. We can’t keep looking to government to make decisions for us. People power has a long history of profound political power when people really want it. I don’t mean rising up in demonstrations, I mean making the changes yourself.’
Air Quality News is speaking to Fogle from a school in Gloucester where he’s meeting the winners of a UK-wide competition to see who could wrack up the most ‘zero-emission miles’ to and from school in a week. He says it’s inspiring to see so many enthusiastic youngsters taking up the cause. Perhaps apathetic and cynical adults could learn something from them.
‘You look at the worldwide movement of youth and youngsters who have catapulted the pressures on the environment into headlines all around the world and it’s incredible,’ he says. ‘As much as some people might criticise or feel threatened by them. I think that the passion and drive of our youngsters will make things happen.’
When Fogle talks to school children, he likes to use an analogy involving his own experiences in the wild. He believes that only by going back to basics can air pollution and climate change be properly tackled.
‘The way we need to live is similar to expedition life. You’re still having a negative impact but you become much more resourceful, much less wasteful, you value the energy you have from the sun that goes into your battery bank for your satellite phone.’
‘You value the water that you keep in your bottle that you collected from a stream that you might not see again for days. You value your sleep and shelter. We’ve lost a connection with cause and effect. Consumerism is now about want rather than need. We’ve almost become blinded by a system that we don’t necessarily need to subscribe to.’
Ben Fogle is an ambassador for Go Ultra Low, the joint government and business campaign for electric vehicles.
This article appears in Issue 2 of the Air Quality News magazine – which you can read here.