Sustainability isn’t always sustainable: Environmental thoughts from an eco poser

Guest post by Nikki Mayeux
My daughter in nature.

I grew up in an environment of ubiquitous suburban wastefulness and general disassociation with the natural world. My mom used paper plates for most dinners, even though we had ceramic ones, because it was “so much easier.” Reusable grocery bags were a concept was foreign and suspicious. We owned five television sets.

The exact moment that I became aware that my actions had a direct effect on the world around me occurred on-or-around Earth Day 1996, when my fourth-grade teacher had us watch this PSA video about water conservation…

It shows a little boy letting the faucet run while he brushes his teeth on the right side of the screen, and a pond rapidly draining on the left — threatening to beach the fish that lives there. Until the fish calls the boy on the phone and tells him to maybe stop being such a thoughtless asshat, and he turns the water off.

That shit stressed me out, y’all.

And in its haunting shadow, an environmentalist was born

Now, every time I throw my kitchen trash into the garbage bin outside, I have to actively resist thinking about how many millions of people are throwing their trash out at the same time. And how those millions of trash bags are all going to get picked up by giant garbage trucks who will drive them all to giant landfills. And how this has been going on at the same volume for decades upon decades. And how all the plastic that has ever been made is STILL FUCKING HERE because it takes plastic at least 450 years to biodegrade.

Needless to say, I am not a fan of climate change deniers. In fact, I put them right up there with Westboro Baptist Church members, and lifters who don’t re-rack their weights, on my continuum of eternal scorn.

Our planet is the one thing that every single one of us has in common. We all breathe oxygen. We all drink water. And we’re all going to be up shit creek when those things aren’t breathable and drinkable anymore. Environmental protection should be the most unifying, mega-multi-partisan issue on the docket. Surely this will get fixed, little fourth-grade me thought, after watching that PSA. Surely all of the smart and powerful people of the world will get together and figure this out. And yet here we are, in 2017, still thoughtless asshats draining the pond.

My own attempts at sustainability are passionate, but fragile

I buy the reusable bags, but I forget them in my car. I toss the food scraps in the trash because it will take too long to empty the compost bin and the baby’s already crying. I wake up one day feeling like Captain Planet, and the next I’m considering buying paper plates for dinner.

I know I’m not alone. It’s the same mechanism by which any serious yet non-immediate threat gets pulverized in the gears of our everyday lives. We can only maintain that long-sighted concern (or in my case, overwhelming dread) for so long. We get tired. Things come up. As humans, we may deeply value empathy and aspire to hold it at the center of our beings, but it’s self-preservation that drives our lizard brain. There will always be a sizable part of our psyche that we just can’t convince to give a shit about something until it’s pounding on our door. And I think there’s an especially large, entirely intersectional number of us doing this with the environment.

It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable publicly advocating for environmentalism

As long as I drive a Toyota and turn on the air conditioning before June and use disposable diapers, I will feel like a hypocrite. Like I’m not trying hard enough at what I supposedly believe is one of the most important things to try at in my lifetime. But it’s precisely because it’s so important that I can’t afford to give in to my insecurities and defeatism. I have to make peace with the fact that this will never be an item I can check off my list or a project I can complete. It’s something that I will strive towards, imperfectly, for the rest of my life, and something I will raise my kids to continue striving towards long after I’m gone.

This year and all the years after, we will elevate Earth Day to “real holiday” status in our household, and we’ll celebrate with my daughter by reading books about how to take care of the earth, going on a nature walk, and thanking God for our planet and all of the beauty and magic it holds.

And we will try really hard to remember those reusable bags.

Comments on Sustainability isn’t always sustainable: Environmental thoughts from an eco poser

  1. I have those same feelings. In the more rural community I grew up in the only thing you could “recycle” was aluminum and you had to drive it over to the guy every Saturday. I now live in the city and it is still just as hard. Sure, I cloth diapered my first kid and my second for a while, but I got run down. Now I am a single mom with 3 living in an apartment where I have to drive my recycling to its bin. Sure it’s hard but you have inspired me to try again.

    • I am so fortunate to live in Portland where along with curbside recycling and yard waste, it also includes curbside composting. Every time we consider going elsewhere, we hear about so many cities who make it hard for their citizens to do this and it ticks me off. When Portland went to curbside composting pickup, it reduced what went to the landfill by almost 70%. Some folks complained initially about the program, but it’s made a difference and now a way of life. Fighting for this kind of change is huge!

  2. It’s not just you. I have those same thoughts, every time I take out the trash. I tried to be an urban homesteader for the last ten years – I felt like I failed continually, so now I’m taking it day-by-day, doing what I can, when I can.

  3. I’ve been struggling with keeping my mood up since I put environmental care in the front of my mind because I feel like everything I do isn’t enough. My fiancé has to remind me constantly that the little things, though little, are still helping, but I’m still angry at myself for all the other things I don’t do. I forget my reusable bags, but I buy package-free toiletries and anything else when I can. I get fast food with styrofoam and plastic packaging but I no longer buy a 24 pack of water bottles because I have a reusable one. I can’t do everything, even though one day I hope I can, and I hope one day I can be brave enough to inspire others to do the same.

  4. Love this! It is funny because there is a lot of talk of something similar in Vegan communities. The idea of creating an image of perfection- when that isn’t true. I think we all have something we get lazy about, and I think that is fine. If EVERYONE did that, it would still make a huge difference!

    And you mentioned disposable diapers- and cloth isn’t 100% the best. Yeah you might feel icky because there is the visual of lots of diapers in the trash, but I know that I am contributing to micro plastic waste from washing my synthetic diapers, and having to use water each time I was them- which I do pretty much every to every other day.

  5. I have had similar thoughts about the plastic packaging and plastic drink bottles that are so un-necessary, but convenient. For a while I began researching ways I could cut back on my plastic consumption but then life would happen and I would grab the most convenient items which are encased in plastic. When I was in the baby phase, I would wonder how many thousands of diapers I had thrown away over the course of 4 babies. Now that guilt happens when making their school lunches with the snack baggies. I looked for bulk food stores but came to find out there isn’t a single one in a 50 mile radius. I came to the conclusion that I need to take baby steps in learning to live without some things. I buy things in glass bottles when I can. I have been trying to show my kids that the water from the tap tastes just as good as water from a plastic bottle (although that one is tough when your husband contradicts you). I try not to take a plastic bag in stores when I only buy one or two items. And I have purchased reusable containers and fabric sandwich bags for my kids school lunches. Every time I can “save a bag” I feel a little triumphant. By taking smaller steps it is more feasible to change your lifestyle than trying to do all or nothing.

    • Agree, taking individual steps rather than mass change can make it so much easier to develop eco friendly habits. BTW I learned about Azure Standard, which does bulk organic, and am planning on trying it as it seems to be a great way to get bulk items to folks who don’t have access (we have access already but the prices are better on Azure!) – you might check it out…?

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for voicing what I’ve been feeling. 🙂 We moved into an apartment/condo just over a year ago, and I find myself a little more lazy regarding recycling and going green. There’s no green bin/organics collection in the building. Recycling is in the garbage room, but is limited. Utilities are included, so we’re not faced with electricity or water bills. And when I toss kitchen scraps and should-be-recyclable-but-not-in-our-building stuff in the garbage, there’s a little voice in the back of my head that feels guilty about it. I do what I can, and needed this reminder to try to make a difference. It’s tough when you can’t do all of it though.

  7. Oh I feel this so hard! Right now I am throwing away my recyclables because the recycling only gets picked up once a month and my very large bin is already full. I hate doing it but I also have a small house and can’t keep it until the bin is empty (and then it would just fill all the faster). I have reusable bags and a few reusable produce bags but I forget them in the car all the time! I have occasionally asked the bagger to just put things back into my grocery cart and I will bag them at the car – if I remember to even do that. I do a lot of shopping at Costco because it is the most affordable way to get organic food in my area but everything is encased in plastic! My three pack of cucumbers are individually wrapped and then wrapped again, drives me nuts. I would love to have a kitchen garden but have come to the conclusion that similar to Olaf in Frozen, I like the idea of gardening, the reality doesn’t jive so well. I am currently practicing with an avocado plant – if that lives I will review the idea again.

    The constant struggle to want to do the right thing but needing to have the time and energy to do so can get so frustrating.

    • This is exactly why we need to fight in our cities to improve things like curbside recycling, composting, etc. Here in Portland we have weekly recycling pickup and a few years back they added weekly composting & yard waste pickup, then reduced garbage pickup to biweekly, which gently forced people to start putting their scrap food in the green compost bins (they even gave everyone little kitchen scrap pails as a promo) since food waste is often half of what ends up in the garbage. This ended up with a reduction of well over half the stuff that was going to the landfill, and now they sell the compost for folks to use in their gardens 🙂

  8. We started recycling when we bought a house because the recycling bin was included in the price of our monthly service. We didn’t recycle when we lived in an apartment because it was an extra charge and we were saving for a house!
    You know what I sometimes wonder when I see the recycling get picked up? Is it REALLY going to be recycled? Or is it all just a sham and it gets dumped into the same pile as the regular garbage? Are our cans, bottles, and plastic bags REALLY being recycled into new cans, bottles, and plastic bags or are they getting buried in a landfill despite our best intentions? Sometimes I think I’m too cynical and suspicious for my own good, but really, how do I KNOW where it goes?

    • Not cynical at all, that happened years ago in Chicago. I think they eventually got it all sorted out but there was a time while I was living there that the recycled items just got tossed in the landfill.

      • I knew it! Not saying that’s what’s happening to ours but I knew that had to be a possibility. I suppose if I really wanted to investigate it I could call our garbage company and just ask what recycling center ours goes to based on our address but … I think I’ll just trust the system for now!

    • I recently learned that the big paper bags we fill up for yard waste and set outside next to the trash cans… just go into the landfill with the rest of the trash. I’m pretty furious about that, especially since our neighborhoods in CA had yard waste bins that went to actual, yknow, compost. So it’s a reasonable fear. >:(

      • Well that’s just infuriating. I mean, I guess at least that stuff will degrade faster than the other stuff that goes into a landfill but still.
        I’m glad we have a big property so our grass clippings, leaves, etc just go into a pile back in our woods.

    • Here in Portland we have a Master Recycler program that people can take classes to not only learn about the whole process, but includes field trips to the recyclers so you can see where your stuff is coming in, the manual sorting that goes on by the workers (in PDX we don’t sort our recycling beyond glass), and the massive 2-story “bales” of scrap paper that they then sell to manufacturers to make recycled paper products. It’s really cool.

      The thing people have to do is make sure and follow the instructions about how to recycle in their city – too many people still tossing their recycling in plastic bags, for instance, and those bags get knotted up in the rollers and clog the machines. Or thinking they can recycle ANYTHING plastic instead of what’s specified…not to mention thinking that plastic is recycled when it’s actually downcycled (meaning, you can’t make a plastic bottle out of a plastic bottle, most plastics can only be made into composite items like decking, etc., and those things can’t be recycled).

  9. It makes me so sad to think that humans* have grown to value convenience to such an extent that we’re not willing to make sacrifices for the good of the whole. We all live here together, and if we don’t take care of the earth, literally no one will. I often feel like I’m one of the only ones who is sacrificing comfort or convenience for the sake of being kinder to the planet, and it’s so disheartening. For every extra mile I’ve driven my Prius (and refuse to replace it with a newer car because throwing a car away is even worse than continuing to use a gas guzzler– and it’s NOT a gas guzzler because it’s a Prius), for every time I’ve used my DivaCup and Thinx in the past 11 years and haven’t bought tampons, for every month I keep my thermostat to 78-80 in the summer and 60 in the winter (I didn’t ever use AC when we lived in CA and didn’t need it, but now we’re in TX and it’s not optional), there are ten thousand idiots who are throwing away styrofoam plates for every meal, using a new straw with every drink, throwing away toys or building materials instead of donating to a charity, thrift shop, or ReStore. It makes me sick.

    Sometimes the only comfort I can find is in the knowledge that, once we have burned through our resources and destroyed the planet and made it inhospitable for life…. the earth will still be there. It will adapt, and new species of roach or bacteria or whatever will take over, and we will go the way of the dinosaurs. We need the earth to survive, but she sure as hell would be better off without us.

    *in general, that is, not referring to anyone who has commented because it sounds like we’re all in the same boat!

  10. You can thank capitalism for your anxiety – it has successfully tricked us into thinking it’s the responsibility of individuals like you and me to stop climate change, when that’s bunk. Large industries contribute WAY more waste than we ever will, but as long as we’re stressing out over paper plates we won’t ever have the energy to really take them to task about it!

    • It’s not either-or though. We have both an individual and community responsibility to be environmentally respectful and responsible. My actions reflect sustainability at the micro level, and I also make sure my vote happens at EVERY election for people who actively support environmental protection and my charity dollars go to the NRDC, who are the badass lawyers who sue the big polluters to make them accountable and protect our earth.

  11. Dear souls, nobody can ever do everything for any cause whatsoever. How do you know you’re capable of more? You haven’t dropped dead yet from exhaustion. Is it reasonable to ask of you all that you are capable of? No, because the minute you drop dead of exhaustion you cease to contribute to the solution.

    Furthermore, nobody needs to solve everything all by themselves. If enough people do what they can within the parameters of not being self-destructive (and everybody has different levels of what would be self-destructive for them) then everybody’s partial contribution will add up enough.

    In ecology, as in everything else, keep your eyes open opportunities to make things better, big and small, and do what comes to hand. Don’t hate yourself for being tired, or for living where things are set up to make doing the right thing hard–that’s not your fault. And don’t beat yourself up for mistakes, or for momentary failures in the establishment of habits–that’s all part of the learning curve. Loving and taking care of yourself gets better results than shooting yourself in the foot as punishment for lagging in the race.

    Love to you all, and to our dear Mother/Sister Earth!

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