Ingrid Robeyns is Professor of Ethics of Institutions at Utrecht University, where she is directing the Fair Limits project, which investigates whether limits to the possession of ecological and economic resources can be justified.

“Citizens must use their political power to speak up to protect the planet for the sake of all animals, including ourselves.” 

What does it mean in the 21st century to be a citizen in the face of the challenge to save our planet, and ourselves? We can do so much more than we do right now, yet outside the period when elections are held, most of us forget that we are citizens. We see ourselves primarily as mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, consumers, workers, students, entrepreneurs and volunteers. If we decide that we want to do more to protect the planet, we focus on changing our consumption patterns, we put solar panels on the roofs of our houses, we cut meat out of our diets, or volunteer in an organisation for wildlife protection. 

This is all positive and laudable but we should see ourselves in the first place as citizens who have political rights and liberties that we can use to demand change. We should raise our voices when someone tries to turn the protection of our planet into an ideological issue between left and right, pointing out that protecting our climate and biodiversity is as much in the interest of the children of voters on the political right as the children of those on the political left.

We should join demonstrations that demand from our governments more radical actions to protect the environment, and fund independent journalism that investigates the companies that pollute and spread lies and disinformation about the state of the Earth. We should invite friends and colleagues to collectively read books that illuminate us on the true state of the planet and only vote for parties that do not contribute to further transgressing the Planetary Boundaries. More profoundly, when considering for whom to vote, we should consider giving the ‘green’ policies of parties a larger weight in comparison to other issues. 

All this is needed because the future of the planet is the most important precondition for the flourishing of all animals, including ourselves. 

The reason we must rise and unite as environmental citizens is simple. The recent past has not given us any reason to believe that companies and politicians will show the leadership we urgently need to protect the planet. With few exceptions, companies put profit before people and before the planet, and some should simply be classified as being complicit in harming our Earth. Also, with few exceptions, politicians suffer from short-termism, wanting and needing to please their voters and donors. 

You may feel unsure about what you can do. You might feel that the action of one person doesn’t make a difference. But history has proven that this is unjustified: there are plenty of individuals who made a pivotal difference and, even more so, who made a difference if they joined a social movement. If we start to see ourselves, first and foremost, as citizens who can use our political rights, and who are not afraid to speak up, we can make a difference if we unite!

Chapter image

Read the Living Planet Report 2020