Do you believe that you, as an individual, are living sustainably?
This was the question posed to me and fifteen other college students as we stood in a circle for a presentation about sustainability. The presenter posing the question, a speaker for a local waterways advocacy group, looked to be in his mid-sixties. Not one of us moved. Not a single person in the circle raised their hand to indicate that, yes, we felt like we were doing enough.
This outcome was not surprising to me. The course we were a part of, called “NYC Coastlines: Past, Present, & Future,” specifically studied the climate crisis, and each of us had researched just how unsustainable our individual and societal practices really are. What did come as a surprise, however, was the response to the presenter’s next question. He looked around the circle and asked, somewhat smugly, “Does anyone here consider themselves an optimist?” Almost every hand in the circle raised, including mine.
There are a number of different narratives about the climate crisis. Some provoke hope or despair, others instill fear, and others still provoke apathy or outright denial. In one of these narratives, we find ourselves at the very precipice of disaster, with the tools to avoid said disaster at our fingertips, or perhaps just barely out of reach. In this scenario, only our collective spirit and determination as a human race will decide if we rise to the occasion, or throttle ourselves over the edge into chaos. Another common narrative paints a portrait of a world too far gone, so settled in our overindulgence and disillusioned by our powerlessness that the only solution left is to brace for an apocalyptic future. Perhaps neither of these portrayals are correct. Perhaps both of them are. But alongside these narratives of collapse, there exist parallel narratives of sustainability; stories about what needs to be done, that allow us to imagine what a “sustainable future” might look like and what role we, as individuals, might play in possible solutions.
Our cultural narratives around sustainability, fed by widespread narratives of climate collapse, determine the courses of action we envision and eventually can take to secure a viable future for ourselves and our planet. With this in mind, it is crucial to revisit and reassess the current prevailing stories we are told, and tell ourselves, about the available pathways to a sustainable future. Standing in that circle, fifteen students and I acknowledged that our versions of the narrative simultaneously held somewhat contradictory beliefs that we are not on the right track, but that there is still hope to achieve a better, more sustainable future. After reflecting on these ideas myself, I have been troubled to find that one of the most influential narratives about attaining individual and societal sustainability today is, in fact, entirely wrong.
Right now, a prevailing strategy I have noticed for combating climate change consists of active consumerism for passive impact. It is the idea that by buying more things, specifically reusable or otherwise “sustainable” replacements for the items we already own and use, we can reduce our individual ecological footprints and thereby lower the amount of waste and greenhouse gas being released into our environment. From tote bags to reusable tooth brushes, soap dispensers, silverware, and straws, the market for “sustainability” has never been so booming. In essence, most of the advertisements, companies, and media we come across are packaging profit-motivated consumerism as the solution to the climate crisis—or at least as a marketable way of minimizing individual feelings of guilt.
This consumerist mindset around sustainability relies on two key pillars of logic. First, by purchasing and then using reusable or sustainably made items, we can significantly reduce the negative impact that we as individual consumers have on the environment. Second, this reduced impact, either by itself or when combined with the collectively reduced impacts of others, will make a worthwhile difference in the fight to slow climate change. Each of these foundational arguments are fundamentally flawed. In fact, in many ways they are entirely false.
“Climate conscious” consumerism typically necessitates a mentality that separates the consumed item itself from the ecological impact of its manufacturing and shipping. What many of us don’t realize is that disposable versions of products, for instance plastic or paper grocery bags, as opposed to reusable canvas totes, often have a far smaller ecological footprint from a manufacturing perspective. A 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark revealed that on average, an organic cotton tote bag would have to be used twenty thousand times just to offset the overall impact of its manufacturing and production.1 For perspective, that would mean using the same bag every day for fifty-four years. In stark contrast, the same study found that the average single-use plastic grocery bag only needed to be used 1.2 times to offset its environmental impact.2 The current prevailing mindset around consumerism makes it easy to feel like purchasing a trendy tote, or any number of “eco-friendly” item swaps, is an easy step towards a sustainable life. In reality, manufacturing and shipping emissions, not to mention the use of natural resources (like the water needed to grow cotton for your tote bag) frequently counteract any minor impact that using the product might have.
The other central tenet of eco-consumerism is just as flimsy, if not more so. Even if we are mindful enough to make our reusable items worth their while, the sad truth is, the resulting impact still wouldn’t really matter. There has been a raging debate for some time in environmental activist circles about whether or not the actions of an individual even matter in the fight against climate change. Statistically, it is clear that the environmental impact of one human, or even hundreds of humans, would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. If you or I reduce our ecological footprints to zero, the trajectory of the climate crisis would not change. With this in mind, one of the prevailing arguments in favor of individual acts of sustainability is maintaining a culture of mindfulness and awareness. By using a tote bag to carry home our groceries rather than a plastic one, we are signaling to others that climate action is important to us and, therefore, it should be important to them too. In making the conscious decision to opt for the “sustainable” option, many argue that you are keeping the climate at the forefront of your mind, modeling sustainable behavior, and potentially sparking conversations with others about sustainability which could eventually lead to broader cultural change. To this argument, I would say yes, conversations and awareness are important. Public awareness around the issue of sustainability plays a crucial role in the shaping and spreading of sustainability narratives. But these conversations sparked by individual actions matter only if they can lead to actual, tangible systemic changes that make a real difference.
One of the worst flaws of the consumerist approach to climate change is it promotes the idea that there are one-for-one swaps from bad polluting habits to good climate-curing ones. Our lives, this attitude would have us believe, don’t actually need to change. Our products do. In reality, the climate crisis will not be fixed in a way that is so simple or so comfortable. Life needs to get harder, specifically less convenient, for us if it is going to keep going at all. The consumerist climate approach lulls us into feeling like we are making a difference, all while lining the pockets of some of the biggest polluters and masking the truth that most of us already willfully ignore: Coping with this disaster will take actual effort. Your life is going to have to get worse.
All of the reports, statistics, and scientists concur, the climate is going to continue degrading and it might just mean the end of the world. However, for some people, the climate crisis is no longer even apocalyptic, but rather post-apocalyptic. This assertion may at first seem overly dramatic. And it is certainly dramatic, but as ecological theorist Timothy Morton describes it, considering the end of the world as a past-tense occurrence is not necessarily unreasonable. “Clearly,” Morton explains, “planet earth has not exploded. But the concept world is no longer operational.”3 Morton’s definition of world aligns with the traditional, global imagining of what a world ought to be. In a few words, stable, able to support life, a home capable of sustaining the living and growing creatures of our planet. To smaller, poorer, more coastal nations, life has already been altered by climate change in a way that has made their world unrecognizable. If we step out of our Western-centric perspective and consider the world as home to the entire human race as well as countless other species, we would realize that for the global, all encompassing “us” the world has very much ended already.
All of this information raises the question: How can a group of students who acknowledge the post-apocalyptic aspects of climate change and do not feel that they are living sustainably still claim to be optimistic? The answer lies in which version of the story we are being told.
One key element of “NYC Coastlines: Past, Present, & Future” involved examining the issue of climate change from a various angles. Students performed scientific field work like water quality testing, while also studying the cultural history of the city’s coastlines, and engaging in artistic practices like performance art that addressed climate issues. The more we learned about the reality of our changing climates, and put this information in conversation with historical and cultural factors, the more easily we developed our own understandings of what has contributed to the catastrophe, and where we can go from here. Human beings are the only species on the planet known to tell stories. In many ways we shape our understanding of the world by stringing together information into narratives on both individual and cultural scales. As a result, our ways of grappling with the climate crisis are directly tethered to the stories we build around the issue. With this in mind, a first step should be addressing our societal perspectives on the situation at hand, specifically by replacing harmful and false narratives around collapse and sustainability with a narrative that confronts the reality of what is at stake and imagines what realistic solutions may be. And, in the potential for that shift in perspective, there is a tremendous amount of hope. There is hope to be found all over the climate crisis, as long as we can re-learn what to hope for.
The good news is, there are ways that we can get onto the track that will improve our environment and change the way we interact with it. The ideas that provide the most hope are, in my eyes, those that are geared toward changing how we consume, as opposed to what we consume. One of these ideas is the concept of circular economies—self contained systems of trade and consumption that localize the materials and production of consumer goods, so that the products we use come from recycled waste from our own communities. A circular economy limits waste, but also, by localizing production and resources, products no longer have to be shipped around the world or use parts from numerous different countries.
Other solutions involve changing the ways we operate and interact with our infrastructures. Different communities have different impacts on the environment, but they also have different resources at their disposal. Though corporations might have us believe that our personal environmental impact is an individual’s burden to fix, the actions and impact of ordinary citizens are largely dictated by the systems in which we live. Some of these systems, for instance national governments or global economies, can at times seem disconnected from the smaller, individual choices we make. However, they create the social and cultural framework in which we operate and ultimately determine the infrastructure that individuals have access to. Ask yourself where your clean water comes from and where it goes once it heads down your drain. Wonder about how your food made it to the grocery store shelves and what it cost the environment to get it there. Look around you at how space is used in your city or town and imagine how those spaces could be redesigned or used in ways that help our environment rather than paving over it. The idea that things must continue to operate as we have always known them to is just a story we tell ourselves about what kind of future is really possible.
We are at the beginning of many dramatic changes to how we live our lives as global citizens. Some of these changes will be conscious decisions, others will happen as a necessary response to environmental changes. There is no single solution that can save the planet. However, I firmly believe that we can only get closer to finding the right solutions and acting on them when we understand what really needs to change by becoming aware of the narratives that exist around sustainability and continually questioning them to see if they are accurate and productive. However, being informed is about more than just having the right information, it’s also about how that information is communicated and framed.
The framing of information, the narratives we weave together to explain how we get from point A to point B, is what dictates how we use the information we have and what kinds of outcomes we imagine are possible. Our cultural priorities are reflected in the priorities of our climate solutions, and these priorities are in large part dictated by the stories we tell on a cultural scale about who we are and what matters to us. In a society that values material goods and convenient lifestyles, instant gratification, and quick fixes, it seems inevitable that our ways of addressing climate change seek to maintain those aspects of life, even at the expense of actual sustainability. The only way to fully face the climate reality is to shift our cultural values.
This cultural shift won’t happen overnight, and I am far from the first person to suggest such a change. A number of scholars and activists have discussed what cultural shifts may be necessary to address climate issues before it is too late. Economist Kate Raworth has proposed new ways of measuring and defining global economic progress that factor in the planet’s ecological limitations as well as the necessity for human rights in all economies.4 Activists like Derrick Jensen, Lierre Kieth, and Aric McBay take things a step further by advocating for an end of human civilization as it currently exists altogether.5 This ideology proposes that human civilizations are incompatible with a thriving planet, and therefore our lifestyles must become based in a process of degrowth and hyperlocalization. No matter how we choose to engage with the climate crisis, whether we aim to reform current systems or challenge them completely, the longer as we allow ourselves to live out the false narratives that are actually harming the planet, the harder those impacts will be to reverse.
Ever since I stood in that circle, raising my optimistic hand, I’ve wondered about how we draw the line between optimism and realism. The more I learn about the climate crisis, the more pessimism and realism seem almost indistinguishable. Yet, through realism, I also understand that without optimism, without hope, we lose the drive to make things better. Nothing will improve unless we find reason to believe it can, and then choose to act accordingly. And, if the climate crisis is really just one unfinished story, we can’t see the ending without fully understanding the parts of the narrative that have already played out. Who gets to tell the story of climate change, and how it is told, is being decided every day by those of us who listen. Perhaps, then, the real question we need to be asking is not if we as individuals are living sustainably, but rather, what is the real story here, and how will we write its ending?
- “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Carrier Bags,” Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, Valentina Bisinella, Paola Federica Albizzati, Thomas Fruergaard Astrup, and Anders Damgaard (eds.), The Environmental Protection Agency, February 2018.
- “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Carrier Bags,” Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, 2018.
- Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 6.
- Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (Random House, 2017).
- Aric McBay et al., Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet (Seven Stories Press, 2011).