You don’t really care about the environment
Warning: you aren’t going to want to read this. But I think it’s important that you do. Because if we want true change, it has to start with us. This isn’t going to be easy to say, so I’m just going to rip off the band-aid.
We are spoiled.
We are unaware of the effects of our actions, we are wasteful, and we put a premium on our convenience over all else.
Whew. Ok, that was a lot. And I don’t disclude myself from this observation. And I don’t say it to be unkind. But I think it’s something we have to recognize.
Most Americans know that our planet is in trouble — that it’s drowning in plastic, that our food is poisoned, and that our landfills are overflowing with garbage. And most people believe something needs to be done about it — 72% of people say the issues of climate change are personally important to them.
But most people don’t actually do anything about it. We want to signal that we care about the environment…as long as we don’t have to actually sacrifice our convenience too much.
According to Scientific American, “The average person born in the US creates 13 times as much damage to the environment as someone born in Brazil, uses 35 times the resources of a typical person in India, and consumes about 53 times more products than people who live in China.”
This means we are one of the most wasteful nations on the planet, despite the fact that we only account for about 5% of the world’s population.
A large part of that is because we keep rolling back environmental regulations on big companies, so they are free to maximize profits at the expense of water, soil, and air quality.
But change has to come from the bottom as well. And that means we have to be a little less cavalier about our very real effect on the planet and others’ lives. People say the issues of our planet are personally important to them, but I don’t think I believe them.
That might sound harsh, and I don’t say this to shame anyone. But we can’t wish our environmental problems away. It’s going to take action on our part, and that means it’s going to take some sacrifice. So, what does that look like?
We can’t use “forgetfulness” as a convenient excuse any more
At this point, most people know that plastic is the worst. It’s in our landfills, our water, and even our food.
And yet, even with this knowledge, the amount of people I still see accepting plastic bags at the grocery is mind boggling.
More “environmentally woke” people realize they should use reusable bags, but don’t. And the reason? They forget to. As a forgetful person, I can relate. In fact, I used to regularly forget to bring my reusable bags to the grocery and berated myself each time…before accepting plastic bags.
To soothe my guilt, I would just recycle my bags — because recycling is convenient. It’s a matter of tossing it in the bin next to the garbage. But since only 9% of plastics ever get recycled, I consider this the participation medal of sustainability. It feels nice, but it doesn’t mean much.
There’s a point when forgetfulness may cross the line into just not caring enough. I cared about the environment, but not enough to walk the two minutes back to my car and get my reusable bags. That would be too inconvenient.
Using plastic for our own convenience is a privilege we take for granted. It’s up to us to stop and think before we use a plastic bag because we “forget” our reusable options. Every bag you accept is going to have a negative effect on our planet and our health for decades.
I proposed a challenge to myself and I extend the same challenge to you. Forgetting my bags is an excuse I can use three times a year. Otherwise I have to retrieve my reusable bags, request paper bags (still wasteful, but better than plastic), or carry the items in my arms (which I have done on a number of occasions — because I am still forgetful).
We need to examine our expectations of ultra-convenience
We are so privileged; we don’t even realize how convenient our lives already are.
When I lived in Shanghai, we had to have our drinking water delivered because of the high metal content in the water (though we still absorbed it through our skin).
Many people in rural parts of the world have to walk, sometimes for miles, to carry their water home.
We have the blessing of clean, running water with the turn of a tap. We can almost literally have water any time we would like, and yet that still isn’t convenient enough for us.
Plastic water bottles are an ultra-convenience. We don’t have to bother to remember to carry our own bottle or maybe walk out of our way to use a drinking fountain. Forgive me for being a little barbed, but we contribute a disproportionate amount of water bottle waste to the planet without a thought, and it really is the epitome of being spoiled.
Plastic water bottles are purchased at a rate of 1 million bottles per minute. And they take over 400 years to decompose. And rationalizing usage of a water bottle because you’re going to “recycle” it? Remember what I said before about 91% of plastic ending up in landfills? We simply use too much for recycling to be a viable option.
Chances are, you don’t see the consequences of the water bottles you purchase. But I’ve seen them piled up in other countries. I’ve seen them polluting the waters of peoples’ villages. We are shielded from seeing the results of our waste, but that doesn’t mean our actions aren’t harmful.
This may make you feel a bit guilty — and it should a little bit. I never thought much of my wastefulness until I understood how my actions had a global impact. That isn’t a bad thing. It makes me stop and think twice before making a decision based solely on my own convenience.
My challenge for you — look at everything in your life through the lens of our expectations of ultra-convenience.
Is it really such an imposition to use cloth napkins instead of convenient paper napkins you’ll just throw in the garbage? Is it really so annoying to have to carry a reusable water bottle and fill it at the water fountain during your next trip to the airport? Is it ethical to purchase a frying pan at the dollar store and throw it away after using it once because it was cheap and you’re too lazy to clean it out? (I wish I could say this wasn’t a true story.)
When we realize how (for lack of a better word) privileged we are, it makes shouldering a little inconvenience for the sake of the planet seem less heroic and more necessary.
We need to set an example by rejecting convenience when it is handed to us
This is a big one, because I don’t think we always stop to think about how convenience is handed to us, like an apple from a serpent (to make a mildly hyperbolic metaphor). We can set an example by rejecting convenience when it is handed to us.
To use a bougie example: during a recent massage appointment, the receptionist offered us a plastic bag to transport our clothing from the changing room to the massage room.
Initially, we accepted the bags without a thought. We’re used to these offers of convenience in our culture. But it occurred to me that it was kind of silly. My reusable bags were in our car — parked right outside the door. Within twenty seconds, I had retrieved them and returned the plastic bags to the woman.
A year ago, I don’t think I would have even thought about this offer of convenience. But when you think about it — why is it necessary? God forbid I should have to carry my clothes by hand the five feet between rooms.
Just because something is offered to you, does not mean you need to accept it. Over the past couple years, I have (almost enthusiastically) refused bags for my leftovers at restaurants, water bottles on airplanes, free tchotchkes at events, marketing materials, having my deli cheeses wrapped in individual bags, and really anything else offered to me that is ultimately a waste of resources. I encourage you to do the same!
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for convenience. If you are gracious enough to bring a casserole to someone in crisis, I wouldn’t expect you to ask them to wash the pan and return it. There are times when a disposable lasagna tin will do.
But these moments of convenience should be the exception and not the rule. We have come to expect convenience in every aspect of our lives — we don’t question it; we don’t even stop to think about it. Until now.
This is more pointed than many of my articles, but I hope it serves to open your eyes. I am not perfect or living a 100% plastic-free sustainable life. Until more measures are passed to protect our environment, it is almost impossible to escape the detriments of wastefulness. And to be fair, our country’s brand of ultra-capitalism has bred us to be mass consumers, focused on urging us to buy and waste more than being content with what we already have.
But I am on a sustainability journey — always trying to learn and be a little bit better. And that’s why I use my platforms to invite others to join me. We just can’t afford to be thoughtless consumers any more. Our actions affect other people.
I hope you feel inspired to stop every time you make a decision to purchase something or throw something away and ask yourself — is my convenience this important? Because that’s what it comes down to. And I’m not asking anything big — I don’t expect you to go out and create a compost pile or buy a Tesla. I haven’t even reached that point yet. But is it too much to ask that we all practice a little more thoughtfulness?
Do you really care about the planet? Or do you only care about the planet as long as it isn’t too inconvenient for you?
Start small. Give up the simplest of conveniences. If you really care about the planet, as 72% of you say you do, then prove it with actions. That’s how we shift the culture and that’s how we create real change.
I use my social media platforms to talk about a lot of things — but one of them is a focus on being “simply sustainable.” I recognize that the best way to achieve sustainability is with easy to implement solutions that fit into our busy lives. A lot of change needs to come from our policy makers, but we can start making a significant difference at the personal level if we all make small changes together. Join me on my sustainability journey at @caitoutdoors or www.caitwithoutborders.com.