It seems that environmental issues have never had better press – more and more people understand water scarcity, know about climate change and realise it takes almost 500 years for a plastic bottle to decompose. But we are not yet seeing a matching shift in global attitudes, at least not enough to impact how people behave. 

So what are we doing wrong? I asked Jacek Bożek – an Ashoka fellow from Poland who has dedicated 25 years of his life to tackling, as he describes it, the age-old issue of preserving ecosystems in Poland. Jacek has, for 10 years, organised The Tree Celebration, an annual tree-planting event that has has gathered over 500,000 people worldwide and resulted in many planted trees and over 2.7 tonnes of paper waste collected. 

Despite it being a well-attended event, this is not Jacek’s only claim to fame. In fact, he is mostly known for his groundbreaking work with preserving the Vistula River and its tributaries. Jacek combats the unregulated construction on the banks of the river basin, something that irreversibly changes the ecosystem and affects its natural cleansing processes. The river is a treasured natural splendour in Poland, and Jacek’s work aims at keeping clean as many water reserves as possible. Currently, through the program “Adopt a River,” over 400 Polish rivers and lakes are under the protection of local communities.

Jacek’s example shows that change is possible. From his experience in mobilising communities and advocating for legal changes in animal protection, Jacek points out the three most common mistakes made in tackling the environmental issues. Here are Jacek’s “not’s”: 

We don’t connect the dots

In this information-age, people have access to knowledge that influences the way they see the issues in their world. For instance, we know that there is a problem with dwindling amounts of drinking water  not only in draught-prone regions but also in places like Europe – but we do not translate that knowledge into action in terms of our water-usage habits.

We still don’t see the link between turning off the tap when we brush teeth for two minutes and the countrywide water supply. Or, at best, we see it but think it’s too small an intervention to matter.

Sometimes these connections are not so obvious. Take Krakow, a beautiful Polish city with the worst air pollution levels in Europe. Inhabitants blame increasing domestic and transit traffic for the smog, but the real problem lies elsewhere.

Almost 10% of households are not connected to the kind of central heating that has emissions regulated by the state; in fact, their heating systems emit more pollutants with each year in use. Communities need to make sure consumers understand these links between local cause and global effect. 

We don’t see the whole picture

In Jacek’s opinion, sometimes the best way to tackle environmental issues is not to address them directly. Instead, we should look for ways to bring about sustainable behaviour change. Take rivers, for example. We can bring in a batch of volunteers to clean riverbanks annually, but that keeps the rivers clean for a few months at most. However, the reason that there is garbage in the first place is that the local community does not care about the river. Instead of working to clean up trash retroactively, let’s proactively spend time developing the empathy and care within the community.

The word ‘system’ is in ecosystem for a reason. It is not only about the river, its banks and its watershed. It is about what grows there, how often it rains, and what species inhabit the area. ‘System’ includes also the people and their perceptions, decisions and needs. It relies on the push for economic development and the need to preserve the habitat. Jacek and his team took time to understand this and to help people engage with the land. He helped to remind people to realise the incredible potential of a river ecosystem even in simply how beautiful it is.

Jacek’s method is about seeing the whole. He helps citizens move past the garbage and illegal construction site to the beauty and natural diversity in their backyard. “It’s really about thinking and acting holistically,” Jacek says. 

We don’t understand that the culture changes after everything else does

According to Jacek, we have to start small to pilot and quickly scale a model that works – something called “release early, release often.” Jacek also looks for existing policies that may come in handy. In Poland, there are European Union directives that require implementation throughout the continent, like the one calling for better cohesion of the river basin management and flood risk management. The shift in policy provides leverage to urge local communities towards environmentally sound practices. This type of mandate, along with activists working at the grassroots level, is working more successfully to shift the culture from one of apathy to one of environmental compassion.