How much does sustainability mean to you?

Food for thought: let’s talk about environmental guilt, systemic change and individual action.

In today’s world of eco-fads, green washing, flight shaming, illogical zero waste advice and plastic-free crusades, sustainability is becoming an increasingly elusive term, often confused with buying fancy zero waste gadgets or living in a cave in order to have no carbon footprint, which is starting to more than slightly annoy me. So, let’s go back to the basics and try to think a bit before answering the title question:

Sustainability and climate change

Sustainability as a word is defined as “the ability to be sustained/supported”. The word has been appropriated by environmentalists to denote existing in such a way, that we are able to sustain long term human life in favourable conditions. That includes preserving and fixing the environment through waste management, cleaner energy production and so on: ensuring that clean air, drinkable water, biodiversity, mild weather and farmable land do not become a distant myth for our grandchildren.

Before we dive any further into the sustainability rabbit hole, I’d like to highlight the fact that climate change is not a recent invention. In the scientific timeline, climate change and the definitive effect of humans on it has been around since the mid-19th century, when words of caution regarding the greenhouse effect, later known as the global warming and now rebranded as climate change, and its connection to the burning of fossil fuels emerged in the scientific community. Incidentally, alternatives to fossil fuels, such as wind, water and solar energy have also been around for far longer than that. In fact, we had a reasonably good grasp of how to produce energy from renewable sources before crude oil was ever used in anything similar to today’s applications. Unfortunately, we chose to invest in the fossil fuel branch rather than into more sustainable sources of energy, because it was deemed more convenient for fast mass energy production. We made it so cheap that it is now more convenient to leave the lights on than to bother getting up off the couch. Just imagine what we might have developed by now if we had chosen differently back then… but that ship has well and truly sailed.

Today we once again stand on the precipice of choosing into which technology we will invest globally and which practices we will choose to abandon, only this time our decision carries a much heavier weight than before. In order to start on the path towards a truly sustainable society, we’d need to significantly change our behavioural patterns. We’d need to seriously commit to the mental move into a circular sharing economy instead of owning everything, i.e. organised public transport instead of our private car with total freedom of movement; of adjusting back to the natural rhythm of the seasons – no more strawberries or peaches in winter; of choosing quality over quantity and buying only what we need and not necessarily everything we want. Rather large changes, aren’t they?

Obviously we can’t expect one generation to change quite so much, because climate change is an abstract notion and people don’t feel directly threatened, so we tinker with recycling, green technologies, reducing our waste and turning off the lights instead. While I think it’s important to do what we can on a personal level (and I do a lot), the rational person in me knows that using reusable bags, buying less and using cloth napkins just isn’t enough to change things structurally on a global level. Therefore, I strongly condemn every attempt at forcing the environmental responsibility solely on the actions of individuals, when it must in fact be shouldered by the governments and large corporations who are ultimately responsible for maintaining an unsustainable system. So to anyone who feels guilty for enjoying their burger in a plastic wrapping: yes, you are an environmental pig, but way too often, so am I.

In fact, I feel like this whole sustainability guilt trip push on individuals has gone a bit too far. It is naive and dangerous to expect that all individuals will collectively decide or would even be able to stop behaving in a certain manner without systemic change. So, you see, feeling guilty for buying a plastic bottle on the road or flying to your holiday destination because of peer pressure is downright dumb. Changing your whole lifestyle to be more environmentally conscious and adapting where you can in the long term, however, is not. It’s what all of us should be doing right now and encouraging others to do, but it won’t make a difference, unless we take it further.

Individual action

The world needs us to vote with all of our everyday choices. Whether it’s voting in the actual elections, active citizenship in the form of protests and voicing opinions both online and offline, or voting with our money in the shops, it is essential that we actually have an opinion and make informed choices every single day. It is absolutely essential that we signal to the governments and corporations on a global level what our desires are and that the push for more sustainable behaviour finally moves from the shoulders of the individuals to those of the large conglomerates, where it can actually make a difference.

Every time we buy something or use a service, we are voting with our money and providing a testimonial for that business. We are signalling to the business that they are doing something right and that they should continue to operate in the same way. If we stop buying certain things or publicly speak out against a practice, it shows in the revenue at the end of the year, which forces the company to consider why the sales went down and change if they wish to survive, so it works. The CFC (freons) push from the 1970s is a great example, when CFCs were linked to the ozone layer destruction. Once awareness spread to enough people, the sales went down and media campaigns and public outrage forced the introduction of official regulations on a global level.

Now, you might say that this process is too slow for the crisis we are facing today, but unfortunately it is all we really can do as individuals in our current system. Climate marches, protests and grumpy teenage activists can only do so much (we’ve seen that it is in fact not much at all) and the only thing the world listens to is money.

If we all commit to the tiniest bit of research of where the things we buy come from and how they’re produced, then adjust our shopping habits accordingly (preferably to support small local suppliers), we can potentially make a huge difference. Right now, in the midsts of the global coronavirus pandemic, the competition on the market is worse than ever, so we as consumers are directly deciding which company will survive it and the economic crisis looming on the horizon. The time for action is now, but it must be reasonable, consistent and long term.

Let’s make it count

So, stop worrying whether a local cafe served you a plastic or a paper straw with your smoothie and ask yourself where you’re getting the majority of your everyday items from and which company you are supporting with your more expensive purchases. Try to make as many informed choices as possible within your current budget and life situation, but once again, don’t put the burden of the world on your shoulders – it’s not about doing this eco-thing perfectly, but rather that all of us do it imperfectly on a large scale.

Convincing billions of people to care about climate change and act is much easier, when you aren’t aggressively asking them to uproot their whole lifestyle, but rather asking them to make small changes and buy the things they would buy anyway more responsibly. If consumer patterns change, the greener options will become more affordable, and since sustainable products tend to last longer and use less energy, there will be a significant financial benefit for individuals in the long term as well. Electric cars for example, didn’t just appear because someone cared about the environment, but rather because the larger companies have entire sectors dedicated to predicting the future market needs, which are driven by consumer demands. Where there’s demand, supply will eventually appear too and the market will adapt.

However, the idea of a free range, ethical capitalism is dangerous: you cannot blame people on minimal wage for choosing the cheapest option available, nor can you talk about them freely making an informed choice. Influencing the market has always been a rich man’s game and ethical buying and sustainability are even more so, because many companies artificially lower their prices with offshore production and workforce exploitation. How much of our privilege are we willing to give up in the name of ensuring a nice future for our descendants? While it’s important to consume responsibly within your means, it is unrealistic to expect that people will give up the chance to go for a holiday in order to buy sustainably-sourced food.

This is where the governments are supposed to come in: subsidising public transport, recycling, local production and green technologies has resulted in a shift in investment and behaviour patterns in many countries, but that is only possible if you vote for a party which will push for such actions. Voting in the elections and political and social action are free. And yes, I am referring to the Western world. Climate change was caused by rapid industrialisation and mass consumerism, which makes it a first world problem and we are also the only ones that can successfully mitigate it and force investment in sustainable technologies. The carbon footprint of a sweatshop worker or a starving family is very close to zero, which is further argument that environmental responsibility cannot be shouldered by individuals.

Do we care?

However, the process of change is and will be slow. Worldwide change has always been too slow to prevent disasters and right now we are in the middle of one. Coronavirus has shown us the traps of globalisation, the fragility of our defunct economic system and the importance of available healthcare, but it is unlikely we’ll see real change in those areas. It is far more likely, that we will develop herd immunity, either through vaccines or naturally, and forget about it. True change only comes when enough people die or suffer for the survivors to feel directly threatened and really think about what went wrong, so lots of people will die because of climate change before we truly change. It’s a cold, hard fact.

Unmitigated climate change would drastically change the whole world, endangering food production and making the weather increasingly hostile. Now, if you were to look at it objectively, you could say that climate change would stabilise after enough people die for the Earth to be able to sustain the reduced population and its technology in the long term again. Perhaps they would magically develop sustainable technologies and live happily ever after, but this issue is far more complicated than that. The CO2 that is already in the atmosphere won’t just magically disappear if we stop producing more and its consequences will be felt for decades to come. So sustainability doesn’t just mean acting in a more environmentally friendly way or mitigating climate change, it also means planning for the future. We will need to adapt to the climate changes that are already assured, because we can no longer talk about stopping it, just about mitigation of consequences.

It’s pretty hard to comprehend such a huge issue on a global scale, even with proper education, particularly when its more severe consequences will only be felt in the future. Is it any wonder then, that a lot of people refuse to believe the scientific evidence amidst paid or erroneous contrary claims and that they refuse to care? And is it any wonder that the people in power refuse to give up their privilege, when they know they won’t be alive long enough for shit to hit the fan?

So let’s ask ourselves with a slightly more balanced outlook, what does sustainability mean to us. I say we stop waiting around for someone else to do something, but rather actively start holding the governments and the companies accountable as much as we can, instead of shaming each other for our non-eco choices and vacations. Let’s ask ourselves how we can shift the environmental guilt where it belongs and what we are willing to do on a personal level. How motivated are we to replace quantity with quality? How much are we willing to adapt? Or are we happy with paper straws and lip service? And do we actually understand how much we would need to change the way we live if we wanted to continue living comfortably?

All of us are caught in a system, designed through generations, and the only way to change it and its outputs is from the inside. And yes, change may be slow and individual action options are limited, but they are there. Now, we can either get informed and do it peacefully over time, or we can continue to stick our heads in the sand of mass consumerism until a violent revolution and wars for land and resources will do it for us. If we choose the latter option, it probably won’t happen to us, so this is not another guilt trip, but rather food for thought, because it will surely happen to our kids or grandkids.

Do we care? The freedom to choose is real.

P.S.: If you think that the economic slowdown during Covid-19 lockdowns has slowed climate change, think again. It is by no means a substitute for coordinated action and will not lead to a reduction of CO2 atmospheric levels, which are driving the changes. See the WMO report here. And if you’re still not convinced climate change is real, start here.

P.P.S.: Here’s another brilliant post about environmental guilt and green shaming.

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