I have been thinking a lot about climate change recently and especially what I can do to be a better person regarding the environment. Writing this blog makes me feel even more accountable, because, even with my tiny readership, if I am going to put my thoughts and choices into the abyss I better at least try to be someone I am proud to show the world.
So, while I can’t remember the last time I bought a plastic bag or bottle, I am a diligent recycler (it is shocking how much plastic still can’t be recycled) and I buy almost nothing, this blog has pushed me to do better, especially on the travel front. But it has also led to me think about guilt. That deep, gnawing sense of guilt that gets everyone when you know you are making a choice that is good for you but not for the planet. Yes, I now carbon off-set all my flights, but it would be infinitely better to not fly in the first place. However, I continue to book plane tickets.
Therein lies the crux of the issue, for me, at least: it is all well and good to change behaviours you don’t see as fundamental to your life and happiness – it is another thing entirely to pledge to give up something, forever, that you truly love and you see as central to how you want to experience the world.
It’s different for everyone. For me, it’s flights (and the other associated environmental issues surrounding travel). Yes, you can be a green traveler, but it’s still not as effective as staying put. I would also struggle to be vegan or vegetarian 100% of the time, as I have no desire to make any hard and fast rules about my diet. Currently my meat consumption sits at three sausages a week, which is all I want really but is enough to ban me from the veggie crowd. ‘I don’t eat meat except for three sausages a week or if someone else makes me food or occasionally in a restaurant-ian’ seems unlikely to catch on. The final big thing for me is having children, which is essentially the worst thing you can do for the planet. But I have always wanted children, it is pretty much the only absolute non-negotiable I have for my future and, right now, there is nothing that could make me miss out on that experience on the off-chance that it somehow contributes in a tiny way to potentially curbing climate change.
For some people, buying new clothes and shoes and make-up are the problem. For others it’s buying food out regularly in single-use plastic containers when they work a busy schedule and are on the go all the time. Some people drive everywhere. Some people just love steak. Some people get cold easily and like having the thermostat turned up high. You get it.
I, along with many other people, am happy to make slightly inconvenient changes that allow me to help the planet in a small way. Every plastic straw we avoid putting into the ocean is a tiny, tiny win. But banning something from your life permanently, something that you love, to help the planet in some minute way, is a much greater ask. As more and more scientists explain just how urgent the climate crisis is and more and more people retweet shocking pictures of devastated forests or dead coral or beaches full of plastic bags, it is becoming clear that these tiny changes are not enough.
And that’s when this stuff gets hard. It’s nice to think we can undo some of the fastest degradation the Earth has ever seen by bringing a bag for life and catching the bus, but it is patently inaccurate. This is so much bigger than plastic straws and a bit of pork. Yes, every tiny change matters – it is not pointless to plant a tree or shun that plastic cup – but really, truly avoiding the damage that climate change is already inflicting on the planet is about more than that. It’s about changing human society as we know it and, essentially, undoing industrialisation, the very thing that brought us most medicines and aeroplanes and smartphones and all the little features of modern life it would be difficult to now live without. Yes, people in the past managed it, but they didn’t have another option. Our expectations have been raised and I’m sure we’d have a lot of disgruntled hunter-gatherers if next day delivery reverted to snail mail.
Climate change has been brought about, primarily, by the unprecedented levels of CO2 and other toxic gases we’ve injected into the atmosphere by, well, making just about everything we know, use and love today. Plastic bags that take a thousand years to degrade are the tip of an iceberg of ecological fuckery. Everyone talks ardently about saving the planet, but the cynic in me is skeptical – to truly stop climate change, we have to do more than shun single use plastics. We have to shut down the factories, close down the airports and ban all the cars. We have to dismantle capitalism. We have to undo… everything. This is why, despite the micro improvements that individuals can make, the most meaningful environmental activism rests with companies, governments and society as a collective. We need to stop only doing the little things. We need to tackle the big things: massive overconsumption, constant production and the decimation of natural resources. And I worry that the real answer is that… we don’t want to.
Sure, in theory, we all want to save the planet. I believe that. But when it comes down to not just giving up simple conveniences but also reverting back to a pre-industrialised world and all that that entails in reality, I’m not sure we’d like the answer, if we were honest with ourselves.
Do we want to live without the Internet? Smartphones? Air travel? Supermarkets stocked full of fresh food that you didn’t have to grow yourself? Without central heating and nice clothes and those kids you desperately want to have? Without connectivity and extensive transport links and advanced healthcare?
Perhaps we could return to a far less ‘modernised’ society, if we all agreed to it. I think it is highly unlikely that some humans would give up modern life in its entirety while others continued to travel and buy new clothes and send emails, but perhaps if we could somehow collectively organise, it would be possible. However, with industrialisation came globalisation, so any mass-action will need to involve the whole planet, a level of community organising and trust that we’ve never seen before. Also any amount of de-industrialisation would, I imagine, necessitate a reduction in globalisation too. We can talk about individual commercial flights all we want, but we are not just transporting people across the world, we are sending tonnes and tonnes of food and products through the skies and across the oceans every day.
There is also another core tension in the battle to reduce climate change: the chasm between who pays for it and who benefits. This is essentially the core battle of any problem of inequality. Yes, on some level, climate change is somewhat of an equaliser. We all live on the same planet so climate change affects all of us. But the most privileged will always have more options – they will be the ones on the top of the hill as the waters rise and they will be ones getting into a spaceship when we finally find another planet to colonise. The reality is that to save the lives of the many, the few must make themselves poorer – though I imagine many would still be wealthy in a relative sense – and if human history suggests anything, it’s that rich people on one side of the planet meaningfully giving up luxuries and security to help poorer people they’ve never met on the other side of the planet is highly unlikely. I’m not talking about a donation here or there, but rather a sustained effort to fix the planet and save the lives of people in low-lying atolls even though you, living in New York or London or Beijing, will probably never truly feel the impact of rising sea levels outside of your Twitter timeline.
I am a realist. I don’t see how we can undo climate change and still live broadly similar lives to the ones we do today. I just don’t see how we can go back. Capitalism is too strong – for as long as the economy keeps growing, we will just keep producing more and more and more – and we are too comfortable. There is research that shows that how happy you are tends to be less about your objective reality and more about how your reality compares to your expectation. Think about how upset millennials are that, despite being told (and therefore expecting) that a university degree and some hard work would lead to good job and no debt and some financial security, it was all a lie. Imagine if then, to top it off, it became “not only will you work forever to pay the rent that will haunt you until you die, you also have to give up much of what modern life has striven to offer you, so other people, literally decades if not centuries from now, might live on a planet that isn’t facing an environmental catastrophe.” Think about going back to a much more limited existence, knowing all the amazing opportunities you’d given up.
It’s hard. There are no easy answers. And while I agree wholeheartedly with climate change prevention efforts, large and small, I think we could all be better at offering compassion to those around us, and remembering that people aren’t bad for enjoying the nice things they now have access to. Yes, air travel is contributing significantly to climate change, but travel is wonderful, and you aren’t a bad person for wanting to do it anyway. I also think we could all accept that the machine of human growth is powerful and the climate might change. It already has. You aren’t terrible for living in the world anyway, contributing to a system you never signed up to be an active player in. The magical garden of Eden we all hope to return to while still scrolling Instagram on our iPhones while wearing new jeans and some lip balm doesn’t exist. This is the price we are paying for ease and access and choice. I wonder if it will be worth it.