04 Aug THE FALSE PROMISE OF SUSTAINABILITY
The world is ending.
We’ve been saying that every year for decades, now, but all of the sudden it’s become a much truer, pressing, and inescapable fact. With our Twitter/Instagram/news feeds slowly turning into those culty Christian roadside billboards that say things like THE END IS NIGH, we’re caught in an endless cycle of doom-scrolling. Here’s a scientist telling you that X amount of glaciers will have melted entirely within the next year; here’s a video of a hundred-mile forest fire that resembles a gate to hell; here’s another picture of a sweet little turtle being half-strangled by a six-pack ring. It is all so uncompromisingly bleak.
Fear not, fellow youths! Sure, we might have been tasked with the overwhelming burden of attempting to fix the smoldering wreckage of our planet, but that’s only because every generation previous has failed so spectacularly at it! We have a shiny new weapon on our side: sustainability.
Sustainability is, in its purest definition, an objectively good thing. We should be aiming to live sustainable lives. A great majority of people who ascribe to a low-waste lifestyle genuinely care about the environment and have chosen green living so that maybe, just maybe, our society might be able to mitigate the inevitable climate catastrophe. While I haven’t attained the level of some zero-waste legends, I’m also doing my best: I thrift most of my clothes, I try to walk or bike everywhere I can, I’m a fan of composting and recycling.
However, I’ve become wary of the way sustainable living has become commoditized— condensed into an easily digestible set of buzzwords, or packaged up and sold with the promise of paving a pathway to a better future. I keep seeing these sage green infographics floating around the internet, cheerily telling me that I’m already doing a great job at being a Sustainable Queen—but here are five more steps I can take to be an even better tree hugger! You can buy eco-friendly “kits” on Amazon (oh, the irony) that include reusable produce bags, bamboo toothbrushes, etc. You can plaster a “SAVE THE TURTLES” sticker on your laptop or reusable water bottle or gas-guzzling car and feel good, despite not changing a single thing about your lifestyle. You can point at the paper straw in your plastic coffee cup and pretend that you’re doing a great service to the environment.
To me, it feels as if the now-mainstream sustainability effort has warped both the term and the driving force behind it. It’s becoming a contest, with individuals fighting to achieve an internal sense of moral and ethical righteousness while outwardly preaching that there is “no such thing as perfect sustainability!” Eco-consciousness and egoism seem to go hand in hand, with many criticisms of non-sustainable lifestyles ignoring potential systemic factors such as poverty, lack of education, or lack of access to the right tools. Shopping at pricey low-waste stores like Reformation and Everlane does not make you a better person than someone who buys H&M because it’s all they can afford. However, that sentiment often hangs in the air, unspoken, by the largely white, middle-class or wealthy individuals who are the most outspoken about their sustainable efforts.
More dangerous than a struggle for moral superiority is the fact that the current sustainability movement projects the false idea that minor individual actions can lead to a global environmental revolution, leaning away from the glaring necessity of massive structural and political change in favour of reassuring the common person that climate change is somehow soluble by personal responsibility. This is a framework that negates the possibility of holding accountable the billion-dollar corporations who’ve created and continue to benefit from the current climate status quo. Capitalists reduce waste and pollution or reuse resources only when it is profitable (read: in their self-interest) to do so. Companies harness buzzwords like “green” or “sustainable” to support consumerist trends towards eco-friendliness, but refuse to stop their harmful business practices. The dominant capitalist economic system is entirely unsustainable. It’s also, arguably, entirely responsible for climate change, but that’s hard to express on a cute Instagram infographic.
As I watch the Gulf of Mexico catch flame, I cannot help but feel that my avoidance of plastic bags at the grocery checkout means nothing in the grand scheme of things. I am afraid of my own growing numbness to the problem, my constant anxiety now dulled by sheer overexposure to disaster. I fear that my generation will succumb to this kind of climate nihilism, our despair at the end of the world minimized by our feelings of utter helplessness. We take cold showers and eat less meat and nothing really changes.
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