I try to be as conscious of my impact on the environment as possible. I went vegetarian because of the huge carbon footprint of meat production. I bought a metal straw from a farmers market so I could stop using plastic ones, which often end up in the ocean and endanger marine life. I stopped buying bananas after I found out the reason they are so cheap is because of monocultures and worker exploitation. But wait! The better thing to do would be to become a ‘locavore’ and only eat food produced within a 50 mile radius of me because of a study that says eating lettuce is worse for the environment than eating bacon. Yeah, the metal straw is great, but actually the main source of marine plastic is from fishing nets left in the ocean. And one person not purchasing bananas isn’t going to stop a multi-million dollar industry (I didn’t even eat bananas that often anyways).
The environmental movement has become so seemingly dependent on individual action that consumers are inundated with a million different choices, which actually ends up making a lot of people start to become apathetic to the cause. It feels like everyday there is a new way that humans are harming the environment. All these ways are entirely true, humans are harming the environment in innumerable ways, it’s just sometimes a crippling knowledge that leads to feeling helpless. And with every new harm, comes a different ‘real’ solution to saving the environment. It’s difficult to bind yourself to a cause that seems to constantly be regenerating ways to tell you you’re doing it wrong.
My community partner OPAL works with public transportation. They do so as an environmental organization because they see transit systems as a way to create more environmentally-friendly jobs, while working for social and racial justice within low-income communities. This is not going to solve all of Portland’s problems. It’s not going to make Portland completely carbon neutral, or entirely fix systematic inequality. But OPAL is making a real difference on both of those fronts and without someone chipping away at these inequities, no progress would ever be made.
I believe individual action to help the environment should be viewed in the same vein. I could’ve worked for a variety of different environmentally focused non-profits, but I chose OPAL because I am interested in the intersection of people and their environments, and wanted to spend my summer working in some capacity to ensure people’s right to a clean, safe environment. In the same way, I chose to stop eating meat because of the toll the meat industry takes on the environment. That is the carbon producer I choose to tackle. While these choices may only make a small impact, I still make them because I know that impact on the environment is positive.
My freshman year spring, during an internship interview with an environmental group, the interviewer was asking me about what I thought about the organic food industry. I was taking a course on food politics at the time and readily answered by referring to a text I had read for class a few weeks prior, which described how the organic food industry is basically a scam and farmers just meet the bare minimum of regulations to call food ‘organic’ so that they can price their food at triple the price. I expected her to agree with my so articulate analysis of the geopolitical produce economy. Instead, she frowned and asked something along the lines of, “So you’re saying we should get rid of organic farming despite the fact that it had significantly reduced carbon emissions, gotten rid of a large proportion of factory farms, and given more humane treatment to animals?” I backtracked and tried to salvage my point, but I knew she was completely right. I was so quick to criticize a movement, just because it wasn’t the perfect solution, rather than praise it for the positive impacts it has made.
There is no one ‘correct’ solution to climate change, so it seems easier to criticize possible improvements and stick to the status quo, but then no improvements will ever be made. So I believe in doing the little actions and trying to make a positive impact with each one. Living in Portland is a great lesson in this. The City of Portland has a composting system, which has been extremely successful. Composting is a habit in Portland; everyone has containers for trash, recycling, and compost outside their house. Just from the individual actions of people composting, Portland has seen a 44% drop in the amount of trash the city puts in landfills. Every person’s individual choice to compost has led to a significant environmental win.
So maybe I’ll do some more research and switch my diet to some other climate-friendly restriction, or find out some new information and start buying bananas again. But just doing some small action is so much better than doing nothing at all.