Earth Day Conundrums

Happy Earth Day!

Do you watch The Good Place? It’s hilarious and entertaining but also takes deep dives into philosophical topics. In the most recent season, the characters discover that no one has qualified for the Good Place (a version of Heaven) in 521 years. Why? Because life on Earth has become so complicated, that even when humans intentionally make “good” decisions, those decisions often come with unintentional “bad” consequences.

I think about that a lot. Most recently this morning when I read an article about how sunscreen is causing damage to sea life — specifically coral. Sunscreen wasn’t really a thing when I was a kid. And then it was. Seemingly overnight there was a huge push to make sure everyone was using sunscreen. It became part of every conversation at pediatric well-visits. Using sunscreen — especially when talking about anyone supervising children — was what responsible adults who made “good” decisions did. It still is.

How long did it take us to figure out the unintentional negative consequences of our actions? And are there other negative consequences we haven’t discovered yet?

The same thought process goes though my head almost every time I read about Earth-day related topics. I want to make the “right” decisions, but it’s not always clear what’s actually helpful, versus what ends up just being performative. Some of my thoughts:

-A few months ago I read about Precycle, the first zero-waste and packaging-free store in New York (featured in the photo at top). Customers bring their own containers which are weighed when they come into the store. They fill their containers from bulk bins, and then the weight of the container is subtracted at check-out, so that they only pay for what’s in the container.

Is this the way of the future? I assume they still have to deal with shipping, and with the packaging materials of the bulk items when they receive the goods. Are all the food items they offer organically grown? What’s worse: packaging, or chemicals and hormones from non-organic farming that get into soil and water sources?

-Plastics are a huge issue. Every day there’s a heartbreaking new headline about a whale who washed up on the beach and was found with 48 lbs of plastic in its stomach. Do you predict we’ll move away from plastics? Or do we find them too useful to give up? I mean holy cow they are in everything — plumbing, helmets, buckets, furniture, and on, and on for eternity.

-Here are 10 plastic items you can give up right now. Is that the responsible thing to do? Or would it be better to use your time and energy fighting monoculture agriculture?

-On Twitter today, I read a tweet by a farmer in upstate New York. She wrote: FACTORY FARMS/ MONOCULTURE is a leading cause of climate change — animal or not. I don’t care how you eat, but grouping all animal agriculture in the same pile is a LIE. Smaller sustainable/diverse farms are a local, powerful, pro-planet solution! EAT LOCAL!

It got me thinking — even when I buy organic, or buy from the Farmer’s Market, how much of it is produced in a monoculture environment? And how much is produced on small farms? Definitely makes me long for our life in Normandy, where we were surrounded by small family farms.

-Do you remember the Japanese man who invented a table-top machine for home use that can turn plastic into oil? Do you think we’ll ever get to place where plastics can be returned to a useful oil product on a wide scale? Could we use that plastic-turned-oil to heat our homes? If yes, can you imagine how differently we’d approach landfills? They would be scoured for plastics that could be sold. And people would stockpile their used plastic in the same way we made woodpiles.

-Speaking of woodpiles, if we used oil-from-plastic to heat our homes (or even fuel our cars!), what kind of emissions would it create? Would it be less harmful to our air quality than the emissions from burning wood? Wood fires seem so wholesome, but they’re pretty awful for the air.

-It’s reported that almost 65% of all ocean trash comes from 8 countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia. Here are suggestions on how to help those countries.

-It’s also reported that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. While I favor personal responsibility and love the feeling of taking positive action, am I fooling myself when I drive our electric car? Would it be better to use my energy to lobby investors of those companies, with the goal of getting them to either withdraw investments or force the companies to drastically improve emissions?

Perhaps I can do both. The reality is we all have limited time and resources. I don’t want to spend my energy arguing about packaging or veganism or public transit if there’s something more useful I can be doing, you know? Take the drinking straw debacle for example. Over the last year or so, there has been a ton of energy spent talking about, writing about, and debating about drinking straws. There have been ad campaigns. There have been a lot of dollars spent. Print materials concerning straw-use have been created by restaurants for their tables. What if all that collective energy, and all those resources, had gone toward changing the business practices of ten companies on that list of 100? I’m not even sure what that would look like, but I wonder if it would be more effective at actually reducing carbon emissions.

-In February, Kamala Harris tweeted: 2018 was the fourth warmest year in nearly 140 years of record-keeping. “We’re no longer talking about a situation where global warming is something in the future. It’s here. It’s now.” Our nation’s leaders are in a state of denial. We need to act.

We’ve learned it’s too late to completely reverse the damage we’ve done, but that if we act fast (we have 12 years), then we can stop some of the worst damage.

-Based on my lived experience and observations of my fellow human beings, we are very willing to take action as individuals. We are willing to recycle, to compost, to carry a reusable water bottle. But sometimes, it feels futile to me. Even if you get every resident in California (the world’s 6th largest economy) to recycle, and invest in community programs to make that happen (which the state has done!), would it make a dent compared to forcing some of those 100 companies to make sweeping changes to their businesses?

-Will technology save the day? Have you read about tree-planting drones? They fire seed pods into the ground and can plant up to 100,000 trees in an hour. Are there other hopeful technologies you’ve read about lately?

-Something good to start watching today is the new 8-part Netflix series, Our Planet, featuring narration by David Attenborough. It includes policy recommendations — some considered quite radical, like the proposal to protect a third of the Earth’s coastal waters as marine reserves.

-In January, the Washington Post published an article titled How To Live With Constant Reminders That The Earth Is In Trouble. One paragraph from the article:

“But here’s where you stop reading, because you have a mortgage payment to scrape together. You have a kid to pick up from school. You have a migraine. The U.S. government is in shambles. You’re sitting at your desk, or on the subway, and deep in the southern Indian Ocean, blue whales are calling to each other at higher pitches, to be heard over the crack and whoosh of melting polar ice. What do you even do with that?”

Your turn. How are you feeling about Earth Day? Do you do anything with your kids to mark the day? Do you feel confident about earth-friendly changes you’ve made in your life? Or do you feel like you mostly do it out of peer pressure? Have you ever discovered a negative consequence from a positive action you were making? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo via Inhabitat.

31 thoughts on “Earth Day Conundrums”

  1. Thank you for your honesty. The simplest (not always easiest!) earth friendly choice we make for our family is less – buy less, use less. I sometimes find myself drawn to the latest product that is eco-friendly, but I feel confident in using or modifying what we already have always being the best choice. We talk often with our boys about using only what we need and making do with what we have.

    1. I read something today that I liked: there should be four “Rs,” not just three, and the first and most important is “Refuse” (then Reduce, Reuse, Recycle).

  2. I appreciate this post. I’ve been experiencing a lot of anxiety focused on climate change, particularly since I found out I was expecting our third child shortly after the 12-year deadline report. I struggle with the responsibility of bringing another little consumer into the world, and the worry about the kind of world I’m creating for my kids. And I want to do my part and also worry that reducing some plastics, composting, and the usual efforts (that, admittedly, aren’t terribly inconvenient) will never be enough. I am also frustrated with a lack of government leadership in addressing (or, I should say, approving) methods for making a more drastic and comprehensive difference. I hope we can do better soon.

  3. This article is about people in North America who are choosing not to have children as a means to reduce negative impacts on the planet. It interviews climate activists as well as a bioethicist who himself struggled with this choice and is writing a book about why people shouldn’t reproduce, despite his recent decision to have a child with his spouse. I have a kid and want another; this is one of the most personal angles of the conversation that I’ve encountered yet. Worth a read regardless of your parenting status.

  4. Yes, it’s difficult.
    I do call on everyone not to succumb to paralysis–when we know we can’t do everything, so we do nothing. Keep moving forward, and keep changing your behavior as new information comes in.
    One person’s behaviors won’t change much, true. 7 billions worth of personal changes will.

  5. I find this issue so tricky and troubling too! I have 3 kids (beyond replacement rate!) and I don’t want to go live in an off-grid tiny house. But I’m willing to make other huge sacrifices, which is what I think it will take. Like living in an economy that doesn’t grow.

    I just started the book Sapiens, which is a fascinating look at how incredibly recently and profoundly humans have completely changed the world, and how we’ve adapted as a species to these changes.

    1. “Like living in an economy that doesn’t grow.”

      I think that’s such a good comment. I don’t know that we as a country really know what that looks like.

  6. I think we all just have to try and do the best we can. Have fewer children, eat less meat, buy in bulk whenever possible, refuse plastic whenever possible, keep canvas tote bags in the car and use them in all kinds of situations…groceries, library books, picking up trash when you stop for a walk. Buying less, giving away what you don’t use/need to those who could use/need, bringing your lunch to work, bringing your coffee cup to the coffee shop, bringing your plastic pots back to the nursery for reuse. Buying fewer clothes and taking care of them, buying used clothes whenever possible, handing down usable clothes to people who need them. Stop using paper towels and napkins and disposable diapers. Never buy tampons with plastic applicators. Compost your food scraps and if your city doesn’t have home pick-up service on trash days, lobby for legislation to force the issue. Plant trees, turn off the water when you brush your teeth, maybe take a shower every other day. Stop filling bath tubs and swimming pools. Plant drought tolerant plants. Use public transportation or ride a bike. Teach your children how to care for a home and our earth. Teach the FIVE Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.

    1. And get rid of your lawn, don’t use straws, use the right lightbulbs, only do laundry late a night, only use cold water in the laundry, drive an electric car, live somewhere you don’t need a car, only clean your house with earth-friendly soaps, use a diva cup instead of tampons, never buy tampons with applicators at all, don’t use plastic wrap, only buy digital books and newspapers, don’t eat imported food, don’t buy imported products, avoid air travel as much as possible, live in a maximum of 700 sq feet per two people, only eat food in season… we could keep this list going for a long-time still.

      The thing is, a ton of these things (maybe all?) are totally tied to privilege, wealth, and geographic location. And our country has been talking about these kinds of ideas, and putting them in practice, for twenty years at least — so the people that can do these things, generally already are. I think that’s great, and I love when the focus is on being good stewards. I hope we all keep it up and like you said, try and do the best we can. Even if the Earth wasn’t at risk, it will always be smart and responsible to take care of the resources we have.

      At the same time, based on the data, all these actions never seem to come close to having enough impact. I think we need to force companies — starting with the most polluting companies — to do much better. And we need to demand change at a federal level to have the most impact.

      1. I think Earth Day is mostly about educating the masses, nudging folks to adopt new practices, getting people to care about the planet vs. their own conveniences. I too am in the west coast liberal bubble of privilege. But when I travel into the heart of our country I see things like this: a church still using styrofoam cups for coffee, a 30-something mom with a 4,000 sq ft house using plastic-coated paper plates on the daily, another privileged mom making school lunches where every item in the box is in a single serving container…squeezable plastic, wrapped bar, individual nut serving, plastic-wrapped cheese. The pantry was full of bins with these items for “quick and easy” lunch making. I didn’t see a single person using reusable tote bags at the store and virtually all chose plastic. Trash cans everywhere were overflowing with waste with no intention at all of user sorting. So yes, we have a LONG WAY to go before we can say that most people are practicing even the most basic of environmental principles. Only when people at home are awake, caring, and invested will the push for legislation become a force.

      2. The connection between better-practice (like the things you listed) and wealth and privilege is such a troubling part of the problem. I would love to see grocery stores move back to glass milk and juice bottles (with a deposit) but I know that this is simply unreasonable for lower income families. A diva cup is $30-40 dollars and even the tampons without applicators are more expensive than ones with them. This money can be hard to justify to someone struggling. I want single use plastics to be taxed like crazy, crazy enough to make people bring their own containers everywhere, crazy enough to make people think twice about how much shampoo they use, but I also fear how this will hurt the most vulnerable. It’s hard to know what to do–large scale–to get everyone more on board with better practices. One thing, that isn’t tied to wealth and privilege, though: I moved from an affluent, suburban community with an emphasis on buying (just run to Target for baby gear, just run to Home Depot for whatever tool you need) to less affluent, rural community that was much more open to lending and borrowing. This has dramatically changed my buying habits. Because it’s so normalized, I always ask around before I buy something that I won’t use everyday–kids sports equipment, baby gear, a certain size ladder or specific tool–and I usually find what I’m looking for–and, if I wind up having to purchase something, I know that I’m just adding it to the community pot and that I’ll be able to lend that item to someone else. Our library recently expanded their offerings to include tools and home goods (canning supplies, crock pots) all from donations. Normalizing buying as a last resort instead of a knee jerk impulse is a much needed reset in America.
        Gabby, I love this post for Earth Day! So much to think about (and freak out about!)

  7. Regarding organic: I have read some things recently that organic farming is no better for the environment than conventional farming. Organic doesn’t mean no pesticides – it means “organic” pesticides. And evidence is showing that those organic pesticides are worse for the environment than the conventional ones. Definitely something to think about.

    1. Please do share a link if you’ve got one. It’s true there are different definitions for organic farming, but there are definitely farms that don’t use chemical pesticides at all.

      1. I feel the same anxiety about climate change and worry about what conditions my kids and grandkids will face.
        I’ve almost stopped ordering from Amazon because it drives me crazy that so much stuff is shipped in those non-recyclable plastic pouches. Our local bookstore Powell’s will ship in cardboard packaging so if I do need to order online, I order from them. I’ve stopped buying our beloved Tide pods and now get powdered detergent in a cardboard box. I’m switching to bar soap…but yes, I do feel like my actions are a drop in the bucket, especially when all around me I see big lawns getting watered during summer droughts, the seemingly endless array of landfill plastic at Target, etc. etc. I think you’re on to something with the idea to focus on the big companies that are causing negative environmental impact. I think real change will take government leaders who place climate issues as the biggest priority. And clearly that is not happening here in the US.

  8. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, 3 years earlier “The Graduate” advised everyone with “Just one word: Plastics!”

    No matter our view on climate change we should all be good stewards of the earth. Let’s pretend that climate change is hooey – should we just consume and pollute because we can? Or should we try to keep things are pristine as possible?

    I remember being a kids and just tossing trash out of the car window…Who thought that was a good idea? Campaigns were put together and now only a fool would do that! I remember what it was like to drive through LA when the skies were seriously dark with pollution. In 1966 CA established the first tailpipe emissions standards, and the following year we passed the Air Quality Act…and the result is that we have higher gas taxes and cleaner air. CA continues to pass laws and acts that have provided the public with cleaner air and waterways. I for one, appreciate that we have taxes that both help deter and help clean things up. Many do not, but here we are.

    I do believe that one person, doing what they can to eliminate consumerism in their own home, recycling, thinking about how their grandparents lived locally and without plastics, and many other easy and simple things *can* make a difference. I also believe that sometimes people need to be reminded -or even shamed- into keeping thing clean.

    Thank you sharing those links, I will check them thoroughly to see how I can further help!

  9. I fully believe that until governments step in and force changes the big things that will really make a difference aren’t going to happen. The majority of people don’t priorities eco choices if it’s an inconvenience to them – I’ve lived in two municipalities where most people didn’t use green bins until strict limits were put on garbage collection. So if you’ve got limited time and energy to spend on caring about the planet and climate change – I say go after those big companies! Go after the government and demand changes!

    In the meantime, consuming less (of everything) is the best thing anyone can do. And if you do need something – can you borrow it or get it second hand?

  10. There are ALOT of lists of “safe for the coral reef” sunscreens out there. Do you have one that they use or a fav? Thank you.

  11. I recently read that plant based plastics are potentially also bad for water chemistry and don’t degrade unless composted. Which made me think of all the “convenience” products that are so wasteful. If we could decide to do the inconvenient thing more often, wouldn’t that help? Bring a metal straw, bring your own to go container for leftovers, remember to grab your reusable bags. It’s not as easy as getting one once you get there, but do we really have to do it the easy way all the time? Shifting to this convenience mindset has really helped me see single use products in a different way.

    1. I have family members who do not drink tap water (aka bottled only!) and can use a roll of paper towels a week and yes, it’s all about convenience. I avoid single use packaging as much as possible for food prep and serving, and since my husband is all about disposable, it means I do a LOT of dishes, which is definitely not convenient. I am also willing to wait and find something used locally, but he needs to go and buy it new RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately it seems that convenience takes precedence over everything else this day and age.

  12. This is so good! thank you, thoughtful and practical and still interesting even though we hear about different ideas and the same ideas over and over.. I am going to adopt the new R Refuse, thanks

  13. A thing that struck me in your post was the plastic straws bit, we’ve certainly come a long way in a short time in reducing use of plastic straws but I struggle with the fact that in the grand scheme of things plastic straws are small potatoes. The largest contributors to climate change are energy production/use and transportation. If everyone had electric vehicles charged by clean renewable power (wind, solar, etc.) that would make such a drastic difference – but how do we get to that? But on the flip side the small changes do still make a difference too. So what’s the next small thing we can tackle after straws?

    I’m sure by now you’ve seen Greta Thunberg’s EU parliamentary address. It was very moving. But after watching it I was left with feeling that it’s hard to find hope to make big change when you feel so strongly about something (that is backed by science) but it feels like not many others (especially those in positions of power) feel the same. How do we rally effectively to make big policy changes to enforce the drastic change that needs to occur?

    For Earth Day we joined a neighborhood clean up and picked up trash along the streets of our neighborhood. It’s also very end game and small potatoes but it raises awareness with the kids of environmental issues and beautifies where we live so it has some benefit.

    Also love the R for Refuse commented above!

  14. Thank you for talking about this. Individually and collectively, we urgently need to do more to reduce the environmental harm we are doing… It’s certainly not easy to figure out what would have the most impact, and there is a lot of “green washing” of products. But we can start where we are and keep adjusting. In addition to our actions, I think we need to change our mindset: do we need to buy this much stuff (can we buy less and more durable products, buy second hand, etc.)? Do we need to take solo cars and airplanes that often? Part of it is changing one habit at the time, and part of it also comes down to: what makes us really happy in life? AND, governments need to take action.

    It’s easy to become depressed about this topic… but we need to look at hopeful things too not to become paralyzed… Let me share two things from my little corner of the world (Quebec, Canada).

    1) A famous artist has launched a “pact for the transition”. All citizens are invited to sign and take action themselves, and at the same time the signataries are demanding actions from governments. You can read the pact here.

    2) A company called Loop Industries has found an innovative and effective way to recycle plastics. I read they recently got a contract from Coke, and other big companies are looking into this. It’s probably better to reduce the use of plastic bottles, but at least, if old plastic can be recycled into high quality plastic, and we need less oil to produce new plastics, I imagine that’s a step forward.

  15. Like someone mentioned above, I also feel a lot of anxiety about my environmental impact, especially with all the recent news about how recycling is not the answer we thought it was. I cringe at the use of Styrofoam cups, single use water bottles, packaging of all types, fast fashion and the amount of trash from a single fast food meal but no one around me has a second thought (or has even told me I am ridiculous and worry unnecessarily). Every decision seems to be a trade off between one thing and another and its exhausting and depressing. And once you get beyond the environmental impact, there are the questions of supporting ethical production, small/local/minority/women businesses, product end of life and transportation factors. It’s hard to see a single solution and how an individual action will get us there, but the only way I can get myself out of my (very comfortable but probably not recyclable) bed each day is to do what I can for myself and family and do my best to educate others. I am grateful for several of the ideas above as well! And maybe I need to focus more of my efforts & energy into legislation and education at higher levels. I would appreciate any suggestions on concrete steps to make an impact in that area.

  16. I try to pick one or two things to change or focus on at a time and then move to the next things to avoid analysis paralysis. Eating way less meat. Using reusable bags. Shopping at thrift stores. Using the library. Installing solar panels on our home. Donating to causes I care about like clean air initiatives.

  17. This is such a great post. My family recently moved from California to Hawaii where the impact of plastic is visible on the beaches everyday. I think the biggest impact we can have on the environment is by voting in elected officials that aren’t supported by big business and are willing to take strong action to regulate pollution. Just last year Hawaii passed a law that is banning reef-toxic sunscreen by Jan 2021. That wouldn’t have been done without our elected officials. The most impactful changes we can make are from the ballot box.

  18. I try to be sustainable — I recycle, use reusable bags, etc. But I feel like it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to some of the larger corporate pollution that’s causing many of the real issues. Also, a friend of mine is a big disability rights advocate and is all about reminding us that there are people who have to use the plastic — the straws in particular, but plenty of other plastic things are non-optional. They’re necessary. I want to be green, but I don’t want to be abelist, either.

  19. I love this topic and enjoyed hearing your thought on it! I’m trying to bring my family closer to zero waste, but instead of devoting a lot of time and energy finding an alternative for that last plastic bottle that is purchased only every few months, I’ve been looking for opportunities in my community to encourage businesses to waste less plastic. With one email to a receptive restaurant, hundreds or plastic tray lids are now prevented from going to the landfill every week, and the business is saving money too (they simply eliminated the lid for customers dining in, as I suggested!) Next I’m planning to help my daughter’s school find an alternative to disposable utensils at lunch. Of course, as you suggested, the bigger the business, the greater the impact! Keep up the good work, everyone!

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