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The Sin of Green

David Fernandez Bonet -

There is nothing sadder than positive intentions that result in negative consequences. For example, a kind kid wants to help their parents do the dishes, but inexperience and clumsiness lead to a broken glass and a little cut. While the kid just wanted to help, the reward was pain and angry parents. But what if this relatable, sad story is happening now and globally, where humanity are the clumsy kids breaking glasses, and the angry parents are microplastics, melting glaciers, and acid rain?

The environmental movement aims to protect the natural world from harmful practices to create sustainable living. However, it is difficult to find clear guidelines on the most important practices for sustainability. For example, what is more important for the planet, remembering to switch off the lights or restricting meat consumption? Although the answer is never simple, some actions have a disproportionate positive environmental impact, such as using renewable energies. However, other actions, such as using organic pesticides, have negligible or harmful environmental effects. Therefore, while trying to be part of the solution is the right attitude, the direction taken to solve the problem also matters. We might only see the light if we carve a tunnel in the right direction.

So, what is the right direction? The first and foremost is to realise that little individual actions can amount to a lot, but big collective actions amount to much more. Sometimes, we focus on what we can do as individuals rather than what we can do as a society. Politicians, policymakers and big companies all play a strong role in the planet’s future, and we should praise or hold them accountable depending on their actions. Their decisions matter much more in the long run than the day we picked up trash from the street or recycled our batteries. The environmental crisis cannot be resolved without addressing the harm caused by corporations, which tend to prioritise monetary gains rather than reducing their environmental impact. The narrative that emphasises personal responsibility shifts the blame to us unfairly. Nonetheless, it can be hard to participate in these big, collective actions, as most people are neither politicians nor CEOs.

So, what relevant actions can we take as individuals? Surprisingly, the most popularly endorsed actions often differ from the ones that matter the most (looking at you, efficient light bulbs and grocery tote bags). Wynes et al. show precisely this in their famous article “The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions”. However, transferring scientific knowledge to the general population can be a long process. Have you ever considered that the environmental impact of having one less child is much stronger than a whole life of dutifully recycling? In particular, you would need to recycle about 30 lifetimes to compensate for the CO2 emissions of having a child. Although the article was published in 2017 and is well-known in the scientific community, its insights are still not general knowledge.

For example, living car-free is a high-impact action that reduces carbon footprint. That alone helps save approximately 2.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. In comparison, using an electric car falls short. The discrepancy stems from cutting off the negatives of car travel to simply optimising them. Electric cars are a better option than conventional cars, but they still need electricity, which is only net zero if the energy comes from renewable sources. Furthermore, the fabrication and disposal of the batteries also have an environmental cost. If we instead bike, walk, or use public transport, we will help reduce emissions, avoid traffic congestion and improve air quality.

Similarly, avoiding aeroplane travel and adopting a plant-based diet are impactful factors for dropping emissions. Avoiding a roundtrip transatlantic flight can save around 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions. While these flights are necessary and practical -you can be to the other side of the world in very little time- it is important to know their impact. This is especially true in environments where flights are common, such as academia, international studies, and, ironically, spiritual retreats. Avoiding long flights and using a train or bus alternative instead of short flights can significantly reduce your emissions. A globalised world has its perks, yet casually frequenting air travel takes a toll on the environment and should be done cautiously.

Government policies and corporate practices play a big role in shaping a sustainable future. Encouraging companies to adopt environmentally friendly actions is crucial, although only in the power of some. Focusing on individual actions is an alternative if those actions are impactful. In much the same way a well-meaning kid might break a glass when attempting to help out, our environmental efforts can sometimes miss the mark if we focus on low-impact actions. We might religiously hang-dry our clothes, switch to efficient light bulbs or use tote bags instead of plastic bags in an attempt to help. Those are well-intentioned positive actions, but they could be more impactful. To transform our good intentions into results that do not break any more glasses, we should consider high-impact actions such as having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding air travel, and adopting a plant-based diet. While they might be more difficult than recycling, they are guaranteed to have a positive effect. Even choosing only one of them could make an actual difference

Publicerad: 2024-03-22

Ansvarig utgivare: Raquel Frescia
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