New Year, New Rs

The traditional Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – put all the burdens on the individuals. Ergo, “environmentalists” get a bad rep because we always seem to be yelling at people: use less electricity! buy less plastic! waste less food! The underlying assumption is that everything we do causes environmental harm; do/buy/consume less = less harm.

Ask anyone who makes an effort to “live more consciously”, it is not easy. “Restaurants give me straws for my water without me even asking; now it’s my fault turtles are dying?” You might think. “I thought electric cars are good, but now you tell me it doesn’t make a difference if my electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels?” Or, “Just casually bought some cocoa at the supermarket – what? – I just inadvertently supported slave labor in the chocolate trade?”

I get it, I do. Your frustration is so very justified. You just wanted some darn hot chocolate!

It doesn’t need to be this way. Imagine, if we lived in a world where products, services, and systems are designed to be good. Good as in, for example:

  • A pair of jeans that doesn’t cause the kind of pollution pictured below.
  • Energy that can be generated and delivered emission free.
  • Palm oil that comes from sustainably managed forests – indefinitely – that do not lead to massive deforestation.
  • Product packaging that can easily be recycled or composted.
Water pollution from dyeing denim. Image credit

In this world, would you still:

  • Agonize which brand of jeans to buy?
  • Bicker with your partner about turning the heat up or down 1 degree?
  • Spend hours researching which food or cosmetic product is palm oil free?
  • Read the confusing and constantly changing recycling rules?

If you just got a headache thinking about how hard it is to be a perfectly ethical human being in this world? Ugh, me. too. You see, it is not your fault that you can’t be 100% zero waste, carbon neutral, or cruelty free because the system isn’t setting you up to be.

I just finished Cradle to Cradle at the end of 2019, a seminal book on the circular economy, and it left me a mix of feelings: angry that our environmental narrative is still overwhelmingly focused on the “individual”, inspired that lots of products are already being made more ethically, and optimistic that we can do so much better.

An illustration of cradle-to-grave (linear) vs cradle-to-cradle (circular) model. Image credit: Circular Economy Asia.

The book made me yearn for a future completely reinvented – where industries are regulated and resources are regenerated indefinitely – instead of one where individuals are forced to shoulder the insurmountable burden to “be less bad”.

I’m tired of feeling bad. I’m tired of how many hours I spend researching “how to recycle ___”. I’m tired of perpetually feeling guilty, knowing that I’m causing harm no matter how hard I try. I’m tired of hearing guilt-ridden friends say how bad they feel for still using disposable diapers or driving to work, when they are few convenient/affordable/accessible alternatives.

If you are also feeling tired, I challenge you to think beyond recycling better, driving less, or taking shorter showers. We need these individual efforts, but we also need to support and demand a better system. This could mean:

  • Buy from producers that align with your values, such as those aiming to produce goods in a closed-looped system
  • Write to companies that you want to see more transparent and ethical practices
  • Vote for candidates that support climate policies and act with the kind of urgency this crisis requires
  • Let your legislators know that we need more regulations and public investments in the right places
  • Donate or volunteer for organizations working on structural changes to our broken industrial system

In 2020, I intend to continue looking inward in my own environmental practices, but focus more of my efforts outward. In that vein, I’m hoping to:

  • Organize a digital bookclub raising awareness of systematic issues in the environmental space (it’s low key; leave me a comment if you are interested in joining!)
  • Start a compost at work (not sure exactly how yet)
  • Host at least 2 sustainability workshops/presentations
  • Get more involved with my local bike advocacy organization beyond donation

Did you set any green goals for the new year?