Adequacy, Apathy, and the Last Cookie

A Query of Abject Privilege and Environmental Gloom

Tom Littrell
5 min readNov 10, 2015


The irony of green trash — literally labeled as such — is simultaneously laughable and repugnant. At Muhlenberg College, trash signs are colored green while recycling is blue. There is nothing green about waste. What can be reused, repurposed, or salvaged in any way should be — and to the fullest extent. Just as what comes up must come down, what is trashed, flushed, dumped, burnt, and toted away must still exist; this is the law of conservation of energy. And where this detritus exists it does not innocently preoccupy space but may actively pollute our environment. What’s more, the incredulous person that neglected to recycle, or left the light on, or took too many of this or that is just as responsible as you for the improper care of very limited resources.

What is trashed, flushed, dumped, burnt, and toted away must still exist.

Most troubling, perhaps, is the denial of such resources as being so limited: oil, natural gas, coal, trees, water — yes, especially water. In certain communities, relative resource abundance is low. In the United States, however, abundance of resources is high and so highly exploited. According to The Washing Post, the equivalent of about 24 billion baths or 1 trillion gallons of potable water is wasted every year. Hardly considered is the amount of energy required to render water potable and transport it. It is easier to conserve gas when the price of each gallon is projected onto road signs and listed on your credit card bill. Water is different — it seems to flow almost infinitely from each silver spout. If we are so lucky to sip untainted, unplagued waters, what does afflict us? The plague of the west, it seems, is one of abject privilege. Our liberty to see beyond natural resource limits in even the most trivial decisions is not a convenience but an unapparent weakness.

Why should members of the collegiate world contemplate the discarding of a single plastic coffee stirrer when there are more pressing intellectual matters of which to attend? For the same reason our time is as finite as the petroleum we so apathetically squander. Who is to say how much actual energy goes into the making of every stirrer? Every paper cup? Every wrapper and box and bag? The often presented metrics are confusing, differential, and ultimately worthless. I mentioned earlier the annual misallocation of 1 trillion gallons of water — an unfathomable number. Most sustainability metrics, infographics, film shorts, etc. effectively scare off or are ignored by those that might be willing to shift their habits. In this way, reading a handful of inapplicable numbers is the same as seeing a polar bear floating on a sliver of ice is the same as passing a beggar on the street. The consideration of progeny also tends to not play a role in the promotion of more sustainable initiatives. Walking down a forest trail, gazing over a cliff or into the brilliant blue sky, even the subtle crunching of leaves beneath our feet; we do not normally consider the preservation of these sensations so that our children may also experience nature in the ways we do. The fortune of living in such a rich domain is often taken for granted. If abject poverty exists, then, so too should the notion of abject privilege. The privilege to overlook resource caps is not one to be proud of; It is humbling to know one’s limits.

In reference to Muhlenberg’s green-colored trash labels — the marvelous reality is, single-stream waste processing plants exist and many institutions, including Muhlenberg College, utilize them. Single-stream plants allow trash and recyclables to be mixed and are separated upon a belt lined with sorting technologies. Furthermore notable in the realm of sustainability is the role of behavioral foundation. Having a single-stream plant nearby is all well and dandy while operating within the bubble of a college campus. Nevertheless, the undergraduate college experience is a transitional period, charged with instilling a critical eye and righteous pursuit of worldly betterment within eager students. As such, contentment with the immediate result of throwing material in the trash versus recycling — that it will end up in the same single-stream plant either way — is not nearly as critical as understanding the implications of the choice; uncertainty exists between intentionality and ignorance of this choice. By adopting a mindset of adequacy or contentment in the face of sustainable behavior, long-term effects are ignored. It is therefore imperative to curb behavior towards more sustainable practices in this transitional environment where routine forms habit.

As collaborative and innovative as college students are purported to be, it is not apparent, at least presently, that sustainability plays any sort of role in the framework of their objectives. If change is to be made in an effort to sustain and preserve resources for our own lives and progeny, surely it is possible through the collaboration and innovation of these impending world leaders. This is not a plea to shift our attentions towards environmental issues above other interests nor is it an accusation that irreversible damage has been caused and that the earth is in turmoil. Alternatively, per the subtitle environmental gloom, this text aims to shed light upon the sorrow that is apathy towards the health of our environment. It does not require bloody revolution to consider the sustainable impact of our actions but evolution from archaic principles to modernized morals.

When a cookie jar is full, it costs but petty guilt — in accordance with one’s health — to reach in and indulge. A cookie is eaten, an urge is fulfilled, and crumby hands are dusted off with little reverence for the pleasant ritual that was performed because, undoubtedly, the action would be repeated. When an oil sink is full, it costs but petty guilt — in accordance with one’s budget — to drill in and indulge. A tank is filled, an energy demand is satisfied, and greasy hands are wiped off with little reverence for the gratifying ritual that was performed because, undoubtedly, the action would be repeated.

…undoubtedly, the action would be repeated.

Cookies, as delicious, warm, and gooey as they are, are not an essential element to the human diet. Oil, natural gas, trees, and all the world’s finite sources of energy, while refined and promptly gratifying as a cookie, are unnecessary items of consumption by the world’s nations. And while cookies and oil do both so swiftly satiate immediate demands, they are not without repercussions on the consuming body. This is all obvious — or it should be. So what is to be done? Habits are not so easily changed, though it is not entirely necessary to change them. Reading this article is evidence enough that thought has been given to the topic of sustainability; still, that thought must not conclude with the article’s final punctuation. The wellbeing of the environment, our environment, must be a consideration and fundamental framework carried through all actions both mundane and extraordinary. From the coffee stirrer that shortly swirls before its decommission to the next contract you sign, vehicle you purchase, light you flick, plastic bottle you sip, toilet you flush, bag you fill, words you post, food you order, jacket you zip, sentence you say, friend you make, step you take— consider abject privilege. Consider progeny. Consider the last cookie.