COMMENT:

Bated breath and on tenterhooks probably aren't the best words to describe how we waited to hear that a whale and her calf had been rescued from the Northland beach where they were stranded last weekend. But the sad outcome was no surprise.

Although whales have been stranding themselves on beaches since not long after beaches began, we are still pretty hopeless when it comes to getting them back into the water.

Whale-saving specialists Project Jonah have been around since 1974. Greenpeace and others are highly focused on the need to protect whales.

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New Zealand, thanks to our location, has a higher level of whale strandings than most countries and might have been expected to have nailed whale rescuing by now. This, sadly, is not the case.

The Marine Mammal Medic Handbook isn't much help. Its advice comes down to "wait for the tide to come in and float them out with a bit of a push".

As with whale rescues, most of our strategies for saving the environment in general could best be summed up by adapting American writer Charles Dudley Warner's drollery that "Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it" – or, in the case of the environment, nobody does anything about it that will prove useful in the long term.

Many of our faddish, well-meaning and allegedly environmentally friendly behaviours are anything but. They help our consciences rather than our planet.

The carefully controlled growth of genetically modified foods, for instance, could do a lot more than current practices to feed more people, more cheaply, than will be possible, thanks to blinkered ideological resistance to taking advantage of that tried and tested science.

The feel-good revolution in plastic-bag use has to be the single biggest change to shopping practices since the advent of online. But plastic bans may be misguided, according to an English researcher.

Rhoda Trimingham is a blue-ribbon green. She has an electric car, solar panels and a smart fridge. She is also a member of the Sustainable Design Research Group and an independent thinker on matters such as our use of plastics.

Regarding the latter, she points out that food is itself a resource that needs to be conserved. This means, for instance, that it needs to be transported effectively. The more food you can fit on a truck, the fewer trucks will be needed and therefore less fuel will be required to power them. And plastic is great for storing and protecting food which means less water used to grow food to replace what we waste.

"Sometimes plastic is the best option at the moment," says Trimingham, and taking plastics out of the equation could do more environmental harm than good.

We need to not just work but think harder, if being pious at the checkout won't be enough to save us.

It's a wonder Trimingham can be heard over the sound of scientists shouting into the gathering storm like sandal-wearing Savonarolas – their predictions growing more apocalyptic by the day. "Hothouse earth", "greenhouse gas feedback loop" and "turbo-charged weather" are all concepts we've been asked to think about in the past week.

There is another, more extreme solution, which is that the planet's best hope is for us just to get on with it and use everything up. After all, persuasion, data and common-sense haven't been enough to make us change.

At that point, we won't have to bear the burden of knowing future generations might suffer from our mistakes - we'll actually get to suffer with them. Maybe, this line of thought goes, that will finally motivate us to develop lasting solutions and put them in place. Unfortunately, we will have less to work with in that depleted world.