The world is on fire and we aren’t the driver at the wheel. A precious few people around the world seem to determine the fate of our environment and economy, and any one regular person, especially a struggling student, has little impact. So, what is the point of fighting for change or choosing sustainable choices while Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk race to escape the planet they have neglected by burning more carbon in a day than most of us will in a lifetime? All our efforts can feel so inconsequential sometimes. But it’s the global powers – individuals like Bezos and Musk, along with an increasingly small number of corporations, all driven first and foremost by profit – who are hoping we give up on exactly these sorts of questions.
After a decade of increasingly visible environmental movements, culminating in the global protest marches of September 2019 (led by Greta Thunberg and her movement, Fridays for Future), the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with (or possibly, driven) a widespread environmental pathos as we all deal with more insular concerns like our personal health and the rising cost of living. But with that retreat has come a noticeable increase in a sort of environmental nihilism, particularly amongst younger people. With more than a healthy amount of pressure on their backs, some young people have begun to ask why they should even put so much effort into making sustainable choices? Why reduce their carbon emissions through diet or transportation choices, or reduce their plastic use, when they have such a relatively tiny impact on the impacts of the global consumption on the environment?
Increasingly forlorn consumers, when musing on the state of making sustainable choices, often put particular emphasis on the enormous proliferation of corporate greenwashing overshadowing any attempt at meaningful change. Companies like Shell, Coca-Cola, H&M, and Ikea, all responsible for major environmental damage in the forms of things like carbon pollution, plastic waste, manufacturing waste, and deforestation, constantly throw environmentally friendly advertisements in our faces, all while global carbon emissions continue to rise. And through all that, we are told we are bad people if we eat a beef burger or can’t find a recycling bin.
With personal despair, it’s easy to lose the impetus to act, for the torment comes from both sides. The world burns at the hands of the privileged few, so for what reason should I not live my life however it comes; what is the damage of throwing a cigarette butt on a forest fire? But then when we make an innocuous transgression, a mass-produced soda with a plastic straw, and we’re shamed by everyone from our vociferous vegan cousins to the environmental heroes at Nestlé (the 3rd largest global plastics polluter, who paid for ads across the country stating the baseless claim “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.”)
But there’s a noticeable link in the rise of greenwashing and this rise of environmental nihilism: not only does it pay for companies to pretend to be green… it pays them for you to feel bad.
They want us to give up and think it’s our fault. First, it helps them make money. The worse you feel, the more you look for something to make you feel better. Without a sense of hope for our community, buying products is a quick mood boost. They want us to ask, “what’s the point?” and then go shopping.
But second, and more importantly, if everything is your fault, it’s not theirs. If you feel compelled to throw sparks at the fire, it’s easy for corporations to say, “why would we change when they don’t?” A society that nihilistically asks, “what’s the point?” is going to let those corporations get away with anything. If we all lose the hope to change the world for the better, then they are free to continue clear cutting and strip mining and dumping things into our water, because no one will care to stop them.
Where the problem for us (as people who, you know, rely on Earth for sustenance, survival, etc.) arises, is that if we want to have a healthy planet and healthy people, someone is going to need to force them to change. It is their fault. It is not yours. But any corporation is not going to make environmental choices that do not result in more profit for them. Someone needs to hold them to account. The hope we each have is that we are here to do that. If enough of us pick up the pieces we can and throw the little resources we have into fighting that fire, eventually there will be incentive for broader action.
And here’s where we, young people, students, can find hope. In reaching out to students here at UBCO, what I found was overwhelmingly encouraging. Many students were strongly aware that the burden of duty to make sustainable choices has been offloaded onto the general public. But they also felt that in regard to making the change we need, there is still hope.
When asked why we should still make sustainable choices in the face of unequal actions and outcomes, Hardikaa Balasubramaniam, a 4th year Management student, told me that, despite the power of the producers,
“We are the people that control the demand… if everyone thinks ‘why should I?’ then no one will make an impact.”
No matter how insignificant one feels, consumer demand does drive the economy. See the meteoric rise of digital shopping and food-delivery apps in the wake of COVID-lockdowns. If we were all still comfortable dining in, such apps wouldn’t have had the same growth. Though companies do have power to influence, nothing can change an economic sector like widespread consumer movements; if everyone stops buying something, no one will make it.
Hardikaa notices the incremental structure of consumer movements as well:
“People make decisions on the superficial awareness they have,” and that awareness comes from their community.
Priscilla Uribe, a 4th year Data Science and Economic student and co-founder of Plant Forward Mondays at UBCO, notes that anyone’s actions have knock-on benefits:
“Your individual actions can drive structural/political change and influence corporations from the consumer perspective.”
Anyone can drive the decisions of their peers. Both Hardikaa and I have driven friends (or my parents in my case) to eat more environmentally friendly diets, while Priscilla’s and her collaborators have driven sustainable action across the entire school. From each of us spreading our knowledge and hope for the environment, broader change can grow.
Andrew Halfhide, a recent Bachelor of Arts graduate, and Sana’a Shaikh, a 1st year Bachelor of Arts student, both emphasize that personal choices are the foundation of larger movements.
“We have to start somewhere,” says Andrew, “but change won’t come until we’re all working together.”
Sana’a feels that our individual actions won’t make a lasting difference if they’re not “accompanied by actual structural change, if there’s institutional support,” but also notes, most importantly, that
“by participating in civil society, while making sustainable choices… we can drive structural change.”
As per usual, the youth are correct. Social change is possible, as long as someone believes in it. In the 1960s, in response to years of damage from industrial pesticides and herbicides, Rachel Carson, at the time a relatively obscure writer/biologist, published the book Silent Spring, resulting in a movement that changed the entire American Chemical industry and the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 1987, thanks to a few small research teams, the signing of the Montreal Protocol banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons worldwide, effectively saving the Ozone layer. In British Columbia, years of consumer change surrounding the use of plastic bags, started initially by individual choices and eventually expanding to business movements, have led to plastic bag bans in Victoria and Vancouver.
In hindsight, it appears that these concrete changes came from governments. But they were started and driven by citizens. Even in our uncertain times, governments do hear the concerns of their citizens. Sometimes, it’s a few loud citizens like Rachel Carson. Sometimes, like with plastic bags in Vancouver and Victoria, so many people are making sustainable choices that environmentalism becomes an easy decision for governments.
But still, there is a weight upon each of us in the moment. Widespread social movements seem like pipe dreams to many. That is until they are suddenly, overwhelmingly, upon us. Unfortunately, the movement to stop climate change and reform our economic system to one based on the health of people and environment is not yet charging us down. For now, we are still inundated by corporate propaganda shaming us and absolving themselves.
So, I know it’s easy to feel like shit about this. In an effort to save on rent, I moved into a camper on the back of a 1996 ¾ ton pick-up truck. Every time I fire up the engine, I feel the pain of its carbon footprint. I have driven home in a bad mood and stopped at the drive-thru and lied to myself that a milkshake made with lard is vegetarian. But what I, and all of us need to do in these situations, is note passively our choices, and move on. One less milkshake isn’t going to change the world. But neither will despair.
All of this is not to say that the weight of saving the world is on your shoulders. Just as the destruction is not your fault, neither is the impetus to action yours alone. In the moment, in front of the cash register, worrying about the destruction of the earth by a few global oligarchs isn’t helpful. Instead, it’s very easy to look optimistically at the outcomes of our actions right in front of us. “There’s no downside [to sustainable choices],” says Andrew Halfhide, while Priscilla Uribe notes “[sustainable] actions can positively impact your physical and mental health.” Sana’a Shaikh and Hardikaa Balasubramaniam both note that environmentally friendly action can make someone feel good about themself, and that we should harness that positive feeling. Instead of dwelling on the bad, find little joys in the good choices one can make. The first trickles in an avalanche of change are happening, and there are healthy approaches to consumption possible for each of us.
Instead of looking for pain in our errors, let’s look for hope in our successes.
Drive home with a smile on your face after buying local food at the farmer’s market. Take a little solace in your bus or bike ride to school. Think of a happy turtle while you refill your water bottle. Watch the trees or the grass grow eagerly out your window and remember that all those little moments together can add up to meaningful change. Whatever the pain they try to hoist on us, remember that a better world is possible. Today, it’s not your fault. But when we save the world, you’ll deserve some credit.