A week and half into Plastic Free July, I’m feeling overwhelmed.
I feel anxious but obligated to keep up with the latest reporting on climate change: Chennai has run out of drinking water; France recorded its all-time high temperature; hungry polar bears were spotted rummaging through trash in Russian cities far from their normal habitat; Florida, experiencing a population explosion of invasive iguanas brought on by warm weather, is now encouraging residents to kill them “whenever possible.”
Every piece of depressing news brought on the urge to do more. more. more. Skip that steak, walk more, don’t buy that lotion in plastic packaging.
I’m not alone in this feeling of inadequacy and guilt. Someone I follow on Instagram posted recently: “It’s Plastic Free July, and I’m a disaster…I went groceries shopping and bought milk, cheese, and a cucumber all in plastic. Plus I used a plastic produce bag for my tomatoes. And when I bought wine, the clerk put the bottles in a plastic bag before I could say anything.” When I commented: “Don’t be so hard on yourself!”, she responded: “it’s hard sometimes when I see how far other people are…but thank you, I’ll try!”
For those of us choosing to spend time thinking about and preaching to others about sustainable practices, it seems that we’ve done a great job convincing ourselves that everything from waste mismanagement to climate change is our fault. We eat too many hamburgers, we drive too much, we buy too much in plastic, we buy too much of everything.
This prevailing narrative translates to the messaging of “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle”, “vote with your dollars”, and “every step you take matters.” While that is all valid and good, the other side of “every step you take matters” is “every step you don’t take is your fault.” It is my fault every time I eat beef, every time I turn the AC up, every time I choose to drive or fly somewhere.
But in reality, this line of reasoning is neither accurate nor productive. Because in today’s society, there is literally no one whose behaviors aren’t shaped by culture, public policies, and social norms.
Don’t blame your coworker who commutes long distances in a car, when we don’t have adequate public transit, fuel-efficient vehicles (which require technologic innovation and regulatory actions), and affordable housing closer to work.
Don’t blame new parents for using disposable diapers, when they are expected or have no choice but to return to full time work ASAP and disposable diapers are the norm at daycares (in fact, some states used to prohibit or still have restrictions on cloth diaper use at daycares).
Don’t blame someone who drinks bottled water when there is no clean tap water. Don’t blame families who buy processed food in packaging when that’s all they can afford or have access to. Don’t blame people for not switching to renewables when they are costly, unreliable, or the signup process impossible to navigate.
We are just human beings after all – being pushed and pulled by advertising, time pressure, and peer influence, participating in systems that us individuals alone cannot change, and navigating our place in the world against the backdrop of huge cultural, economic, and societal forces.
So who is to blame for this mess we are in?
Some blame corporations for lobbying, meddling climate science, and actively undermining efforts that would hurt their financial interests. Some blame the GOP for denying climate change, rolling back regulations, and resisting desperately-needed policy actions. All of this is disappointingly and heartbreakingly true: research shows that just 100 business conglomerates around the world are responsible for over 70% of global emissions since the late 1980s.
Re. GOP, Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wisely writes: “It was a Republican president who, in 2001, declined to implement the Kyoto Protocol, a binding global treaty to reduce carbon pollution. It was a Republican-led EPA that, in 2006, argued the Clean Air Act could not regulate greenhouse gases. It was a Republican administration that, in 2007, insisted that all future climate treaties remain nonbinding and unenforceable. And it is a Republican president who, in 2017, abandoned the Paris Agreement, the nonbinding and unenforceable climate treaty that emerged from that old demand.”
Yet these facts still do not convince me that corporations and governments are at fault all on their own. Though now under debate, Milton Friedman’s famous 1970 thesis that “corporations exist to maximize shareholder value” still rings true, and so long as private companies aren’t breaking government and contractual obligations, they are well within their rights to care about nothing but their fiduciary responsibilities.
What about the GOP, and other politicians who throw up their hands and walk away from the hard work of envisioning, governing, and leading? Well, (recognizing the role of gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, electoral college, and so many dysfunctions in our democracy), aren’t we ultimately responsible for them being in office?
So…this is where I am right now, in the uncomfortable place of wanting to blame no one and everyone all at once. And occasionally, this thinking makes me cynical, even angry, at for example the anti-plastic movement that puts too much blame on consumers to solve a problem that we didn’t really create, which in turn absolves the companies and policymakers of guilt. But most days, I tell myself to keep trying, taking even the smallest environmentally responsible step, and spreading the gospel to anyone who cares to listen. Because I want to go to sleep knowing that I did my best, knowing what is worse than failing is not trying at all.
“The notion of participation rather than causation is at the heart of both complicity and collective action,” writes political and legal philosopher Christopher Kutz. Participation is what matters, y’all, whether it’s Plastic Free July, Car-Free Saturday, or Slow Fashion Season. If all it does is to make yourself feel better, so be it. Even if we are making an insignificant impact, at least we have the comfort of knowing that there are literally thousands, millions of us all in this fight together.