Being in Target sucks up all of my optimism about our species’ environmental progress. Kevin and I needed Seventh Generation washing up liquid, so we ducked in and promptly found ourselves amidst endless rows of shiny plastic things, clothing probably made in sweatshops, processed foods, and conspicuous overconsumption. And we realized: this is how mainstream America still lives and shops. My life may revolve around very different ideas of consumption, but I am a minority.
It was massively depressing.
We’re up against so much in trying to shift towards a less consumerist, more sustainable lifestyle. It’s not about a few small, easy changes; it’s about embracing a whole different perspective. I’ve been thinking about my own green evolution and that of the people around me, and several clear reasons emerge why we don’t do more, lose bad habits, and otherwise get around to saving the planet already. Which of these do you identify with?
- We’re overwhelmed. The problems we face are so huge — ocean acidification, massive extinctions, climate change, fresh water shortages — that it already seems too little, too late for a lot of these things. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. And going green sometimes also feels overwhelming. There are too many new actions to consider, too many things to avoid, and too much guilt to deal with. The result: stagnation.
- We’re brainwashed. Most of us were brought up as consumers who spent a lot of time and energy thinking about buying things, even as kids. Opting out means leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of thinking patterns, learning new ones, and essentially breaking up with the dominant culture.
- We don’t think our actions will make any difference. This is one of my biggest stumbling blocks. Changing a lightbulb will not save the planet. Using a cloth bag will not save the planet. Even haranguing your congressman and starting a green movement will not save the planet. It helps, a little. Our individual ability to improve a huge, widespread, complex problem is limited. That’s just the way it is.
- We can’t see the impact of our choices. The shoppers at Target were probably mostly unaware of the environmental impact of the things they were buying. They didn’t know that their cookies contained palm oil that was grown at the cost of Indonesian deforestation. They didn’t know that the cotton shirts they were buying introduced a lot of pesticides into the environment and polluted waterways in third world countries. The links between environmental degradation and human rights abuses and shiny new things in a California store are far from transparent. And…
- We don’t want to know. I’ve offered to lend my copy of Food, Inc. to my parents and friends. They’ve refused. They’re not ready to know what really goes into their food, and I can’t really blame them. Our food industry is a strange and scary thing. It’s not just our food, but also just about every other major industry, from cosmetics to clothing. The truth is available, but we don’t go seeking it out.
- We’re too busy. It takes a certain amount of emotional space and head space to care about something as abstract as the environment. If your everyday life is busy, hectic, and full of other concerns, there’s no room left to care about something that seems far away and only tangentially connected to daily life. We’re also easily distracted. See celebrity gossip, sports, and shopping.
- We’re afraid. I often wonder how much of the climate change denial is simply rooted in the fear that we’ve deeply, truly messed things up this time. It’s interesting how we’re grasping at straws to disprove climate change, looking for any evidence that a) it’s not happening, or at least b) it’s not our fault. Instead of dealing with the situation, we’re looking for new ways to bury our heads in the sand.
- Change is hard. It is. And although I’d like to be encouraging and positive, making my life more sustainable has involved significant expenditures in time and energy. Greener choices aren’t always more convenient. They don’t always work as well as conventional options. They sometimes cost more. And many of them involve significant changes to daily routines. Truth.
If you think about areas of your life you haven’t tried to make more sustainable, what are the reasons behind your inaction? Have I missed any major ones?