What can I say to make you care about Syria?

Paul Conroy, the photojournalist injured in the attack that killed Marie Colvin in Homs, says he "can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness." When will people start taking notice of Syria again?

One comment has haunted me after a debate I attended last night, hosted by Save the Children and Intelligence Squared. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photojournalist who was injured in the attack in Homs that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, had just been asked about returning to Syria. Conroy, whose leg with severely damaged with shrapnel, isn’t yet mobile enough to return to war zones, and in any case most agree Syria has become too dangerous for journalists – 36 Western journalists are known to be missing, many more may have been kidnapped and are being kept under a media blackout for their own safety. But Conroy had one more reason for not yet going back: “I can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness,” he said. 

The Syrian war is one of the gravest humanitarian crises in living memory – Conroy, who has reported from the Balkans, as well as conflicts in the Middle East, says that it is “by far and away the worst conflict I’ve ever covered”. Around 11,000 children have been killed so far, and the Oxford Research Group has found that children as young as one have been tortured and executed. Many millions more have lost their homes, are going hungry and are living through the terror of war. Polio has returned to Syria for the first time in 14 years, and with medical supplies at dangerous lows and around 60% of hospitals damaged or destroyed (according to WHO) many Syrians will die from disease, as well as from the direct effects of conflict. The UN believes 100,000 have already been killed in fighting. But is there any point in me writing this, or of journalists risking their lives to report on Syria – does anyone care anymore?

Perhaps it is simply that the full human cost of the Syrian war is too vast to comprehend. Rola Hallam, the Syrian doctor who witnessed the incendiary bomb attack on a school, which featured on a Panorama documentary earlier this year, believes this might be one of the problems. “There’s almost a level of disbelief in the public and in the government about the atrocities that are happening,” she said last night. I understand her point – I re-watched the footage of children running into a field hospital with their clothes and their skin hanging off them, covered in burns, and if I had quite been able to comprehend the full horror of what I was seeing from the comfort my chair, I would have been permanently changed.

It could also be that people don’t understand what’s happening in Syria. With so few journalists able to operate within the country, Assad’s propaganda campaign has gained strength. Many saw the chemical weapons agreement as a sign that the worst of the conflict was over, forgetting that many are still dying from conventional weapons every day. The story of the Syrian war has changed from being a simple narrative of innocent civilians against the evil Assad regime – the rebels are guilty of war crimes too, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups have joined the fight against Assad, so perhaps people aren’t sure who they’re meant to be supporting any more.

Then there’s the problem that even if you feel moved to action, no one really knows what to do. Moral disgust is a pretty futile emotion if you don’t do anything with it. Politicians have fallen quiet since the chemical weapons agreement. No one in government is discussing military intervention any more, and in government circles talk of securing humanitarian corridors has gone quiet. What cause do ordinary people in Britain have to rally behind?

There are few small things you can do. You can research NGOs operating in Syria, and donate to one you feel is making a difference. You can talk and tweet about Syria, and help restart a conversation that will force politicians to moot radical action to get aid into Syria, and to work harder towards securing a peaceful resolution. You can keep yourself informed, so that activists like Rola no longer feel, in her words, that she’s “shouting into a vacuum”. You can learn to care again.
 

A Syrian man carries a wounded girl next to Red Crescent ambulances following an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, on June 8, 2012. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.