Recently I was interviewed for a podcast, and one of the interviewers asked me a question I’ve been pondering ever since:
“We’re always being told we have to give things up for the environment,” she said. “What can we do for the environment without giving things up?”
I’ve been pondering this question because I gave the wrong answer, and also because of what the question itself reveals. It has a lot to say about the “we” it posits—human beings—and our relationship to things.
I would have talked about systemic actions—voting, demonstrating, supporting green companies and organizations, all trickier actions than they seem, but she was asking about individual actions. My immediate answer was that when we think we’re giving things up we’re actually gaining better things, and I gave some examples:
• Air conditioning is an environmental disaster for at least three reasons: 1. it’s a huge consumer of energy, most of which is still dirty. 2. It uses coolants that are extremely potent greenhouse gases and that eventually leak unless the air conditioners are disposed of properly, which almost never happens. And 3. It interferes with our biological ability to adapt to heat. Number 3 is a zinger. It creates a cycle of dependency in which we can no longer tolerate the climate we live in. AC addicts move from air-conditioned home to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned destination, wasting energy and emitting pollution at every step. Meanwhile, those air conditioners are making the climate we live in hotter, more inhospitable. When we give up air conditioning, we gain the ability to live comfortably, cleanly and cheaply—that is to say, sustainably—in our natural environment. Sometimes air conditioning is necessary to keep people alive, but when it’s not, we gain more from not using it.
• Many people don’t want to give up meat, which—hand-in-hand with dairy—is likely the leading driver of deforestation, climate change, and biodiversity collapse. But vegetarians and vegans not only gain from a cleaner, healthier, more ethical diet, but many report gaining awareness of the way they nourish their bodies. Some report being disgusted by foods they were habituated from infancy to consume. Those gains certainly outweigh the habituated and fleeting pleasure of gnawing on a carcass before sending it down the esophagus where it will increase the likelihood of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes, infection, kidney disease and liver disease.
We may have to give up some bad habits when we live in accord with nature, but we gain more benefits.
I realized later that this answer was less direct than it should have been.
Last week CBS News broadcast a cheerful segment about a boom in Halloween spending. American consumers spent billions on Halloween items imported from the other side of the planet to be used once and then discarded or boxed for eternity. Asked about shipping delays and supply-chain gaps, the spokesperson for a major retailer told CBS the company had hired its own ships to import all this unnecessary stuff. Their smokestacks billowing diesel exhaust.
I was struck by how out of touch this consumerist boosterism is with our environmental reality. News organizations have come under pressure to do a better job connecting extreme weather events to climate change. What would the news look like if we did a better job connecting extreme consumption to climate change? What would the news look like if we did a better job connecting all our bad habits to their environmental impacts?
Myself included. I should have told the hard truth to the podcast host: we do have to give up things—especially things—and we had better start yesterday. Our consumerism, our relentless effort to stuff things into the emptiness we feel within, is destroying us, our fellow species, and the habitability of our small, fragile planet. When we break that addictive cycle, when we learn it doesn’t work and we don’t need to do it, we may make the greatest of gains.