“The environment” is such a broad, sprawling issue that it’s almost impossible to fathom. It touches everything — from how we communicate to our clothes to our homes to cars to food to… oral hygiene products?. Everything. And if you slow down long enough to think about it, it’ll spin you the hell out. Even right now, you’re reading this on a device that was built with minerals extracted from the earth by the lowest bidder, wrapped in a plastic cover, which (assuming it’s a phone) has the shortest lifecycle of all consumer electronics, and the lowest rate of ecologically responsible disposal.
Have your eyes glazed over yet? That’s the biggest problem with the sustainability movement: We’ve been tricked into pretending that it’s impossibly confusing. And it is confusing. But not impossibly so and certainly not so confusing or nuanced that you’re justified in throwing your hands up and doing nothing. In fact, you’re obligated to do something. Always. It’s a burden of your very human-ness.
Last week, when pressed about the economic impact of the global climate report, President Trump said, “Here’s the other thing, you’re gonna have to have China and Japan and all of Asia and all of these other countries address [sustainability] as our country.”
And he’s absolutely right. Global ecology is a global issue. But he seems to imply that other countries polluting lets us off the hook. It doesn’t. If we hope to win the race we’re in with ourselves — humans sprinting to save the planet before humans can destroy it — we’ll need to demand change on the personal, local and global levels. Part of this means pushing other countries. Part of it means forcing and regulating corporations. But part of it also means that every single one of us needs to make strong choices about how we vote with our dollars. Because the whims of the money spending public have proven, throughout history, their massive ability to create change.
Here’s how to help protect the environment by cultivating a clear purchasing philosophy.
TAKE TIME TO LOOK PAST THE SURFACE… OR FIGHT FOR REGULATIONS
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“Buy local” sounds like an easy maxim, but it’s actually not. If someone makes jewelry at your local farmer’s market with metals and stones that are unsustainably mined before being flown or shipped to a US distributor and then shipped across the country, is that really local? Yes, it seems horribly boring to ask someone, “Where do your metals and gems come from,” but — as is the case with all of this article — that’s the tedious, sometimes insufferable work of voting with your dollars to make sure that the ocean doesn’t turn into one giant vat of acid.
The example of “buy local” greenwashing offered above is microscopic in scope, obviously, but it’s an interesting thought experiment for how we need to train our brains to think. If we can master this — tracing products back to their origins, understanding their money trails and what those imply, and seeing past slick marketing tricks — we’ll be on our toes when a president who proposes cutting the Office of Fossil Energy budget by 85% also spouts off about “clean coal” as if it’s the salvation. Or when corporations that are doing most of the polluting try to curry our favor with a few insignificant initiatives. We’ll see through the smokescreen and understand the real impact of our actions. We’ll research the things we buy and support businesses that make a genuine effort.
That’s not to say that the end game is to shame your local farmer’s market jeweler out of business. The jeweler is insignificant. It’s simply a metaphor for a larger issue. Because the truth is that understanding ecology is hard for everyone, especially when marketing buzz-speak has made virtually every term meaningless. To spend with our dollars, we either have to A) ask those tough questions (costs time), B) support the people asking tough questions, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List (costs money), or C) vote for regulations that outlaw certain corporate behaviors (thereby increasing the size and scope of the government). If you don’t want to spend time researching all your purchasing decisions or pay .orgs to help make them for you, well congrats, you’re pro-regulation. Or pro destruction of earth. There’s just no sensible way to cut through the web of green-washing without an increase in time, money, or government involvement.
Of course, in the best-case scenario, we support all three. We look past marketing babble and hold every purchase to high standards, we support marketplaces that help do the research for us, like IndieGoodz, while also enabling the government and NGOs to protect us from egregious corporations.
SEE THE FOREST AND THE TREES
You heard about the California drought, right? Did you know that it wasn’t due to rainfall or low snowpack? That it wasn’t even due to increased water use on a person-by-person level? No. California is in a drought because it’s drastically overcrowded while also producing 13% of the nation’s food. Many of Cali’s crops are water intensive, too. Virtually all of the pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and olives grown in this country are from the state.
What’s this mean? It means that while it’s important for individual Californians, living in a state of perpetual drought, to convert to low water plants, it’s also crucial that they think about big-picture issues — from population management to shifting crops to converting farms over to vertical hydroponics. We, the people, can’t ignore small-scale issues but we can’t expect them to save us either. We have to vote (both with purchasing decisions and with actual votes) for sustainable policies.
To bring it back to food: Sure, if you live in California, buying almonds might make you feel like you’re “buying local” — but what if the amount of water they consume simply makes the crop altogether unviable at the present moment? What if we just don’t have enough water to snack on almonds, make cheese out of almonds, and turn the stuff into milk? With almonds being popular among vegans and vegetarians, this particular issue becomes murkier. Because by not eating meat, they’re way ahead of the eco game. But if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, should you consider slowing down on almonds? Or, better yet, eating less meat? Yes to both.
Everything we do is similarly full of large and small scale nuances to wrestle with. When we buy clothes, we have to question where and how they’re made. Your shoes carry a carbon footprint, a water footprint, and even a corporate footprint. (If a corporation is making them, there are questions to be asked about their internal sustainability practices.) It’s all dizzying as hell, but this is life in 2018. It’s our moral imperative to engage in the dizziness. And to force corporations and governments to engage at every turn.
Unless you’re a nihilist or an anarchist, you have to at least try to see the forest and the trees. You have to look big and small picture at once, every time you spend. If for no other reason than the ability of humans to force the hand of corporations and corporations to force the hand of governments.
SAY “YES, AND…” TO IMPERFECT FIXES
Remember when everyone was talking about how wasteful straws were? And then it was discovered that the wild stat about us using 500 million straws per day was extrapolated by a 9-year-old working on a science project? Before long there was a backlash — like a full-blown backlash — to the basic premise of “we should use fewer straws”?
This is why we’re in so much trouble. Because we aren’t seeing the 10,000-foot view. Because we ouroboros ourselves to death. Because we don’t realize — okay, this straw thing might not be perfect and it’s certainly not enough, but it’s something. So f*ck straws. Because sure, the disabled might need straws, and they have every right to them. But that doesn’t mean that every single cocktail ever ordered needs to come with two micro-thin stirring straws so as to not exclude anyone. You can keep them in a drawer at your coffee shop.
Is it an awkward conversation to ask someone if their physical limitations demand straw usage? Yes. You know what else is an awkward conversation? Telling residents of Palau that you’re sorry for the disproportionately large role your country played in their homeland becoming completely submerged. Lots of weird pauses in that one.
The fact is, we’re going to have to have some awkward conversations. To make human life on planet earth sustainable (which, again, is a desire that this article takes for granted), we’ll have to get used to imperfect fixes. Because spending money with businesses that are at least trying will persuade other businesses to try better. And then we can talk about the corporations we support divesting from foreign oil. And then… and then… and then… there’s a lot.
Basically, we need to be like the most nimble improv troupe on earth, saying “yes, and…” to literally anything that might help. We’ll have to see our own clay feet and keep walking anyway. No one is asking you to burn yourself alive just because you bought a plastic water bottle once (besides, it would be more restorative for soil minerals if you buried yourself alive instead). But also keep pushing, every time you spend. Do your best and demand the same from businesses and the government.
Even if you’re not perfect or the solutions you’re banking on prove not to be perfect, you have to show up to this effort. It’s how things build. It’s the fundamental level that ladders up to the sorts of sweeping change that are demanded right now.
As Americans, we hate being lectured. We hate being told “no.” We hate hearing that we’ll have to make compromises that our parents didn’t have to make. Or pay for their rampant environmental corner cutting. We’d rather thinkpiece why banning straws is less effective (or polite) than it might seem, instead of simply recognizing that fewer plastics is unarguably a good thing. Most of all, we hate having to slow down every time we hit a cash register or online checkout to think about what that purchase represents and the effect it might have on an environment that seems to be on the brink of collapse.
But that’s part of the hard work of being human in this era. It needs to become like brushing your teeth or flossing (but not with single-use floss picks, you monster!), in how routine it is. We all have a role — to one another; to the future — to be involved in the quest for a sustainable planet. We have to demand sweeping change at ever level. It’s time we embrace the duty with every dollar we spend.