When It’s Hard to Be Sustainable
First, I reserved a U-Haul, that gas guzzling machine that would transport all my worldly possessions nine hours away from the place I’d lived for seven years.
Then, we bought like seven days of take-out, all packaged in plastic or styrofoam (save Chipotle), since our cookware was packed and our fridge was empty.
After the house was cleared of objects, I sprayed a crap-ton of bleach on the ceiling of our poorly-ventilated bathroom, a last resort to less toxic methods after the landlady insisted that all mildew be removed.
We threw away – I counted them – 24 bags of trash, an accumulation of junk mail and old tech cords and broken plates I was keeping in the name of sustainability. But some things lose their usefulness.
When we got to Connecticut, my parents were waiting with open arms and a dozen bottles of water. “The tap water tastes weird,” they suggested. And I wasn’t willing to fight it. In 90 degree moving weather, you drink what’s in front of you.
That weekend, friends suggested we meet them in Maine for a little reunion. Six hours in 25 mph summer vacation highway traffic later, we were there, a little scarred but mostly unscathed, save the carbon emissions that will ultimately doom us all.
Last week I stopped by T.J. Maxx to seek out some linen and tencel things in order to survive the heat wave with inadequate AC in our new apartment. Were these items “ethically” made? No.
We bought a lot of things on Amazon.
Why am I confessing this to you?
Moving is simply not eco-friendly.
And, honestly, that’s a reality I am willing to live with. Because, though I felt guilty each day I imbibed in another plastic-covered digestible, and each time I considered my rising fossil fuel usage, I knew that if I had been asked to be conscientious about one. more. thing in that moment I would have fainted into a puddle of my own tears.
There are times when “convenience” is a kind of hospitality, a guardian saying “let me take care of you” when there’s no one around or you can’t summon the energy to ask for help.
When you’ve been packing for two weeks, interspersed with tediously emotional goodbyes with everyone you’ve known for nearly a decade, it’s all you can do to drag yourself to the couch – as long as it wasn’t already packed – and drink a glass of water.
Collective Trauma & Collective Healing
Pair that with any kind of chronic mental or physical health condition and you’ve got a recipe for a kind of self-implosion. I keep asking myself this question:
How do we make the best ecological decisions under duress?
Now, moving may not be classified as a crisis – save asylum situations – but some research suggests that, for many, moving is more stressful than divorce (what that means over time, I’m not sure).
I have felt, over these last few weeks, either a total inability to manage my emotions or what I call “the serial killer,” a total inability to feel anything. Both are signs of trauma, albeit short term and highly situational.
And I think the idea of trauma – both personal and systemic – is the key to understanding why pushing the individual actor to “try harder” or “be better” isn’t a solution. People in crisis are already managing an overwhelming amount of psychological and physical complications.
And one could argue that, in a world where climate news is bleaker by the day while our governments sit by and do nothing, we are ALL in crisis.
Contemporary activism is pushing us to the brink of what we can do as individual actors, because we are simply not psychologically equipped to “be outraged,” as they say, in any sustained way.
I blame individualism for this, because I think there are ways to see ourselves as pieces of a human puzzle, a kind of global commune, that don’t make each decision feel like life or death for our reputation, or for our planet.
Convenience Culture is Systemic
What’s at stake, in reality, has very little to do with my reputation as a sustainability advocate, and to think otherwise is to be willfully distracted by my own ego.
We are, possibly, at the brink of ecological collapse. And so it is irresponsible to continue in our convenience culture as if the world isn’t on fire.
But we’ve got to understand that the world we live in exploits convenience culture to work us harder, make us spend more money, make us move for better opportunities. (Or, in low income countries and food deserts, plastic-wrapped “conveniences” are all that’s available.)
Capitalism and the fierce individualism of the American Dream suggest that a little styrofoam and another gallon of gasoline are worth the cost – they’re merely part of the hustle that will eventually make us rich and famous, or, you know, at the very least, not impoverished (I just want to eventually not be financially stressed out about ordering dessert at a restaurant, you know?).
Of course, none of this is true. Wages are stagnating, millions are underemployed, and those “self-made” millionaires are never self made.
My rambling point, in the end, is that I could have done a better job…maybe. I’m not sure how many more arguments, sleepless nights, or wrinkles I would have gotten had I resisted take-out for a week, or sold off all my belongings to avoid the U-Haul.
I’m not sure how dehydrated I would have been without all that bottled water. I would have survived it, but I wouldn’t say that even those minor conveniences led to any real sense of thriving.
Some things are inherently stressful, and we just have to get through it. Maybe we come out on the other side having made a series of poor to middling choices.
But if we allow ourselves to wallow in our personal inadequacies for too long, we will get distracted from the reality that change is collective, not individual. That my failings are buoyed by your successes and vice versa.
I know people who have moved to far-off places, gone off the grid, sacrificed relationships in the name of “changing the world,” and what it got them was social isolation and chronic health problems. What are we supposed to give up to change the world? What kind of god-complex allows us to think that we are meant to be personal heroes?
The elephant in the room of sustainability conversations is that the most sustainable thing we could do, ecologically speaking, is to never have existed.
We will take a toll on the planet in the name of our survival. But I believe in collective human sacredness, and I believe that we are all in this together.
I’m sorry, Earth and all who live in it, for my individual failings. But I’m asking you to remember that we’re primates with inflated egos who have inherited several hundred years of systems that wreck the earth, that some of these things were intended to correct social problems and make our lives more bearable, and that they’ve had unintended consequences.
And maybe one thing I can do to right the wrongs is be vulnerable enough to admit that I’m just the same as everyone else.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.