Environmental Nirvana is Unattainable

I am killing the planet.

You are too, don’t worry. We’re in this together. Despite the fact that I campaigned door-to-door to fight fracking, repurpose plastic bags, and use public transportation—let’s be honest: I am punching Mother Nature in the junk.

I don’t buy organic. Those eggs? They’re factory farmed. My facial scrub has microbeads. I order Chinese takeout and it comes in styrofoam boxes. I threw a hot dog bun in the trash yesterday. It didn’t have mold on it, but it looked kinda stale and I couldn’t remember when I bought it.

I’m ready to inspire outrage with my mediocrity, if only to point out that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have empathy.

But what about the chickens, the hordes cry, who will have empathy for the chickens? Yes, environmental stewardship is important, and like most I do what I can while always knowing that I could be doing better. But when the demand for total devotion to environmental purity turns away the casual recycler (i.e., the majority of Americans) the movement is doing more harm than good.

The trouble is balancing a desire to be sustainable with the practical realities of the country we live in—a society that drives us to consume because more Things will make us likable, happier, sexier. But having those Things is also necessary in order to be a functioning member of that very society.

I’m not putting down environmentalists, because we need empathy on both sides. It too infuriates me when the easiest and laziest attacks on activists are “Did you drive your car to this rally?” and “How much oil did it take to make your Nikes? How many Cambodian wage slaves toiled over your H&M t-shirt?” as if perceived individual hypocrisy invalidates the argument that we should take better care of our planet. “You hate big banks, well maybe you should stop having money.”

Unfortunately, I have neither a cotton farm nor the ability to spin cotton into thread or weave it into a piece of cloth to make into clothing. Our industrialized society has outsourced those tasks to machines or less developed economies, for better or worse allowing us to develop service skills and become more highly educated so that we have the time to rally around causes like conservation.

Yet in the face of Capitalism 101, we demand sainthood from people advocating change. Reprimanding the activist whose shoes have rubber soles to me is not that different from telling the woman fighting to keep abortion legal that if she can’t afford children she should just stop having sex. It’s like if we can’t all be the girl who produces zero trash, we should stop trying.

Empathy, people, empathy.

I grapple with the tradeoffs of reality and environmental stewardship. If I buy a compost bin for my backyard, will it offset the carbon emissions of the Amazon truck that brought it here, and the plight of the warehouse pickers? Am I literally strangling baby seals when I buy a plastic water bottle on a hot day because I forgot my reusable one at home? I’d love to buy organic, but right now it’s really important to me to pay off my student loans and build a nest-egg, while organic food is a great way to jack up my grocery budget.

Even the efforts we make feel hopeless when the system is stacked against us.

Take recycling, which is supposed to keep greenhouse gas-producing waste out of landfills. As of 2015, single-stream recycling is a huge mess. A recent Washington Post feature reports that recycling is becoming less cost-effective as recyclables lose value. District recycling officials lamented that because blue bins are getting bigger, people are tossing in more nonrecyclables and contaminating entire batches.

Some months ago, in an attempt to be a smarter consumer, I scoured D.C.’s recycling website for guidelines and found that all but four items can be recycled: styrofoam, “clamshell” packaging, foam packaging, and pizza boxes.

But what does that mean for those bags that shredded cheese comes in? Metal and plastic bottle caps? Deli meat containers? If something has the triangle with a number inside it, does that mean it’s recyclable? Are egg cartons that aren’t made of styrofoam allowed?

We’re not too dumb to recycle, we just don’t know the right way to do it because no one’s bothered to explain it to us.

But for a few people who have achieved carbon neutral-nirvana, life can’t revolve around the pursuit of environmental enlightenment. We should certainly reduce our consumption of packaged, processed, disposable goods, but an abstinence-only approach will fail. One person living a zero-waste life won’t force Kraft to use recyclable packing. Change has to happen outside of us too.

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