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.

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