About a year ago, I performed an experiment. It was during my first months at Minerva, and my time sitting in the grey halls of 1412 had tied me into an existential knot.
Since the early years of high school, climate change had become more and more important to me, so I had done the things I was told “climate-conscious” people do. I went vegan cold-turkey, avoided cars, and bought from sustainable businesses. My family’s unnecessarily big house that only two people live in most of the time, the Amazon packages that filed through our door, and how the organic cashews I bought were processed at the cost of someone’s hands did not cross my mind, or if they did, these considerations floated away as dreamy clouds while I practiced yoga in my basement.
As you can imagine, I fit right in when I arrived in San Francisco. As I sauntered down Market Street to the Civic Center farmer’s market with my reusable bag that I had just bought new, I flicked a proud smile at the Minervans I passed. But ignorance was only bliss for so long, as I began to tire of the heavy-handed social politics of environmentalism in San Francisco.
I watched Minerva staff belittle people for not recycling. Did they think that sending one of the thousands of plastic packages they bought from Costco on an oil-guzzling cargo ship to China was going to make a difference for the planet? If it did, was that minuscule difference worth the damage to a new student’s ego?
One day, I took a plastic water bottle from the fridge at HQ. (I had calculated that at the astonishing rate I seemed to lose reusable water bottles, it actually used fewer resources for me to buy plastic ones.) As I took the plastic bottle, a staff member commented “I wouldn’t have expected that from you.” I was taken aback.
You meaning someone who has expressed concern for the environment before?
You meaning a fellow upper-middle-class American who had been socialized to know that trivial climate-friendly deeds uplift your social standing?
I began to question myself — why did I “care about the environment?” Subconsciously, was I just trying to brush off the guilt of my privilege?
The next week, I learned in Empirical Analysis about Earth’s extreme climatic cycles over billions of years, and how life continued on despite the fluctuations. Why was I trying to save humans if the Earth would go on without us? I have mixed feelings about humanity anyway. I read a Vox article confirming an obvious yet ignored reality — wealthier people use more resources and more carbon, no matter how many Patagonia products and reusable straws they buy. Just by living in the United States, a homeless person who eats at soup kitchens and stays in a shelter uses 8.5 tons of carbon annually, more than double the global average.
Were all my attempts to be an eco-friendly consumer futile unless I left the country and dropped socioeconomic classes, disappointing my family and breaking all expectations for a kind-of-white, upper-middle-class student at “the most selective university in the country?”
Confused about my values and tangled in a philosophical maze, I decided to conduct an experiment. For a week, I would be as eco-unfriendly as possible. For all the little things I usually did to reduce my carbon footprint, I would do the opposite and I would see how I felt. I didn’t follow any of the EA HC’s correctly. I had no hypothesis of what would happen and made no attempt to measure my variables. When I tried to explain it to a climate-conscious friend, he looked confused as I got lost in existential babble about humanity and the earth. But I understand looking back that it was a test of my environmentally-friendly convictions, a proclaimed atheist attempting to reaffirm their faith.
For a week I took single-person ubers, bought cow’s milk ice cream from Foodsco that was full of cane sugar and palm oil, flushed the toilet extra times, left the lights on all day, spat my gum into the ocean, littered, turned on the AC while I opened the window and wore a sweater- whatever I could think of. Even though everything I did couldn’t make a smidgen of difference for climate change, I hated every second of it. I felt dirty, sinful, and still confused.
After sticking it out for seven days, I went back to my usual habits, having reaffirmed my conviction that I did care.
But I still wasn’t sure why I cared.
That only became clear to me this past summer during a sustainable design internship at a farm when we began to use sunscreen that wasn’t biodegradable. One mid-summer day, we noticed a small pile of rainbow-colored foam built up in an eddy next to the bank of the river where we bathed daily. Shaking our heads, we assumed the foam came from the runoff of an industrial farm upstream. Upon seeing a couple of dead crawfish washed up on the shore next to the eddy, I realized the only thing that had changed recently was our sunscreen.
I felt a pang in my chest, the same you might feel if you said something hurtful you want to take back, or see someone crying and want to comfort them. Sure enough, when we switched to a different bottle of sunscreen, the foam dissipated.
So why do I care? Because every time I use toxic sunscreen, throw away a plastic bag, turn on my lights powered by fossil fuels, drive my car, etc., this happens. Living beings, the ones that keep ecosystems — and all of us — alive, suffer and die. My actions may be too inconsequential to make or break the climate crisis, but they’re certainly big enough to affect a few humans and determine the fate of countless organisms.
When you see dead crawfish and foam in the river where you bathe, it is easy to understand why it matters to take care of our planet. You don’t have to think about whether a decision is environmentally ethical because you can feel when it is wrong. Living with nature’s rhythms, you see yourself as a part of nature, your body as a bit of the Earth that you are borrowing for your lifetime, and being eco-friendly as a simple extension of the Golden Rule.
But how can we think this way when we spend four years in seven cities and none in nature, when we are so far removed from the places we take resources from in exchange for mountains of our toxic waste, when our environmental impact is combined with thousands of other people’s and becomes nothing more than a statistic? Someone living disconnected from nature will be affected by climate change, but not at all by the small impacts of their own decisions, so what motivation do they have to be environmentally conscious?
As I buy my plane ticket to London, which will cost 986 tons of carbon, about 13 times the annual emissions for a citizen of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the country with the lowest per capita carbon use in the world), should I be wracked with pain for the land and lives I am destroying? What can we do about the many plane flights we must take at Minerva and the goods we re-buy every semester? Would we feel better if we recycled and bought reusable straws?
I honestly don’t have a good answer. But I do know that I am going to be a farmer, so I guess I won’t have to worry about being too rich.