You launder your clothes in cold water. You load up the dishwasher to the hilt before running it. You compost, buy local and organic, or grow your own. You forego plastic bags at the supermarket and pack your groceries in your own reusable cloth totes. You recycle papers, cans, and bottles. You buy shampoo that hasn’t been tested on animals, and purchase fluorescent bulbs and then switch them off when you leave the room.
These choices mean that you’re probably one of the 66% of Americans who believe the science of climate change and one of the 46% who accept the evidence that human activity is the cause. You’re trying your best to do right by the planet by doing right at home.
Going green—or trying to—reflects a particular set of beliefs. First is the belief that our everyday activities affect the environment in which we live. Second, that the choices we make individually will have a significant impact on the collective environment when aggregated with the choices of other like-minded individuals.
And though these lifestyle choices are ethically motivated, can we be honest and acknowledge that they also are fundamentally consumerist in nature? Consumption—whether traditional or alternative—is so ingrained in America’s cultural and economic DNA that it’s not surprising that green consumerism has become the primary path of personal environmental activism.
Whether you buy fair-trade with your left hand or corporate with your right, someone’s making a buck. After all, selling cloth totes with catchy environmental slogans brings in additional revenue for supermarkets and big chain stores. Raking in the profits as well are Chinese tote factories and container-ship companies whose ships deliver the totes to these shores (using, of course, fossil fuels to transport the “environmentally friendly” totes from the Far East to your shopping cart).
The dilemma is that we choose to be personally virtuous while understanding full well that the sole commitment that can truly match the enormity of a problem like climate change is collective rather than private in nature: that is, public, governmental, and cross-national.
Sadly, the collective—our government—is failing us. Failing to acknowledge the problem. Failing to honestly inform. Failing to articulate and legislate policies that might mitigate and plan for the most serious effects of climate change. In the face of such massive denial, we should be asking: Can the choices and commitments of individuals make any difference when the only institution large enough to tackle the problem is in denial? Are the choices and actions of individuals merely self-indulgent and symbolic? The answers depend on your political stripe, your peer group, or which coast you live on or take your cultural cues from.
The muddle and complexity of choice
To illustrate the muddle of judging the actual environmental impact of our personal choices, consider the debate that raged amongst urban baby-boomer parents (full disclosure: I was one of them) when my daughter was born in 1990. At the time, opting for cloth rather than disposable diapers was a statement of where you stood on global warming and the environment. That was and still is (excuse the phrase) a sticky decision. Complicated, if not impossible, was weighing the impact of fossil-fuel generated energy used in the manufacture of plastic for disposables and the impact of those synthetic materials that ultimately pile up in landfill versus the water use and fossil-fuel generated energy used for the planting and harvesting of cotton, for weaving and stitching, and finally for laundering cloth diapers at high temperatures.
In 2008 a study by the British Environmental Agency tried to provide some clarity. According to the results, disposables have a slight edge over cloth as measured by carbon footprint. Statistics in the U.S. reveal a similarly eye-opening tale. Today, only 6% of parents use cloth. Over 2.5 years, every child in America whose bottom is covered by disposables adds an average of 3,796 diapers to landfill. This adds up to 3.4 million tons of diaper waste per year from Maine to California—or 25% of our total garbage in landfill. Visualize that, if you dare.
The landfill statistic alone should lead to a slam-dunk for cloth. However, the problem is for cloth to beat out disposables in overall impact, baby’s parents must not only choose 100% cotton cloth but also launder the diapers with low environmental impact. This means purchasing a pricey, high-efficiency washing machine, drying diapers on a clothesline, and reusing them on a second child’s bottom.
Can we admit the truth?
Figuring out the actual environmental impact of any personal lifestyle choice is tricky. Many of us have accepted the environmental and political correctness of these choices without much thought about hard data, comparative energy use, or realistic carbon-footprint estimates. Can we admit that researching every contributing factor would be a full-time endeavor that is too daunting and time-consuming for even the most committed? Can we also admit that an ever-expanding green industry seeks to encourage our environmentally friendly buying habits and is cleverly exploiting for profit our honestly held environmental concerns?
Another muddled choice: printed dailies versus online editions
News junkies take note. When you chose to give up the daily printed newspaper, did you take the time to consider the environmental impact of your choice? Like cloth versus disposable, the facts may surprise you.
Understanding which is greener is as complicated as the diaper dilemma. The felling of forests of trees. The transport by gas-guzzling trucks of logs to the mill. The milling, pulping, paper making, printing, and dying. With all those steps to produce a paper edition, my guess was that online would be the greener option. I was wrong. The results of a study reported in the German newspaper Die Zeit, conducted by the Center for Sustainable Education and KTH, both of Stockholm, reveal that the printed newspaper has a smaller carbon footprint than the online version.
Again, the factors in the equation are complex. For the online edition, the study considered electricity use for personal computers; carbon emissions associated with the multiple stages of the manufacture of computer monitors, screens, and PC hardware; and transportation costs from the Far East to Europe.
For the printed version, the study measured carbon emissions for paper production (which accounted for the largest environmental impact), as well as the impact of color printing, the manufacture of printing plates, and electricity used in the printing and folding of the papers. Factored in as well were transportation and delivery costs.
Individual choices and real solutions
Clearly, the solutions to the environmental challenge of climate change are more far-reaching than any individual consumer choice. We can’t green buy our way out of the problem. However, our choices do connect us at a grassroots level to a community of shared concern. And as the circle grows larger, the hope is that by example a major cultural shift will begin to take shape. Then, if our institutions of democratic government haven’t been damaged beyond repair and they begin to respond as they were intended to, the cultural shift will filter up. Heads will be wrenched out of the sand. Blinders will be pulled off, and the hard facts of science acknowledged. Perhaps then the collective force of our individual choices will set us on a path to addressing the most challenging problem we’ll ever face.
Renee Shur lives and works in New York’s Hudson Valley.