Most people, maybe everyone, seem to think they can live a polluting lifestyle and someone somewhere else can undo their pollution. They’ll use plastic and some kid will invent a boat that will scrape it from the ocean or breed a fungus that will digest it. They’ll buy a plane ticket and someone will plant a bunch of trees to undo the damage.
The scientific ignorance in this view should shock us, but generations of deplorable science education means the people who would be shocked don’t understand either. We’ve all or nearly all been corrupted by a system that teaches resignation, abdication, and capitulation of personal responsibility, on the political right and left, among old and young, male and female, rich and poor, of every skin color and national origin. We all want to believe someone else will fix our pollution.
Here’s what works: everyone living sustainably. For about 300,000 years all humans did, without even the wheel. If everyone lives sustainably then humanity as whole lives sustainably. I don’t think someone call live extra sustainably so others can live unsustainably and it all averages out. Besides, if you think others can live extra sustainably for you, why don’t you live extra sustainably for them? How are you going to pull that off? If you believe people with more access to resources can do more, why don’t you do more?
You have no idea how you could live extra sustainably so someone else could live unsustainably, do you? But you think they can do it for you? If you with all your resources can’t, how can others do it for you? Would it be easier for them if they had more resources or less? If more, why isn’t Bill Gates living the most sustainably? On the contrary, he’s polluting more than nearly everyone alive, as are nearly everyone with more material resources. If less, aren’t you saying that your resources are hurting people, in fact all of us?
All of us living sustainably works. It’s hard to imagine an alternative.
If humanity overall doesn’t live sustainably, by definition we won’t sustain ourselves. That means we will collapse—that is, our population will decrease outside of our control. The question of if individual actions matter gets a clear answer: we all have to live sustainably no matter what.
By the way, if collapse makes you think of Malthus, I’m not talking about running out of food. I’m talking about something Malthus didn’t consider, which is poisoning ourselves through pollution, which is related, but different. So if you think, “Malthus must have been wrong because he predicted collapse and we didn’t, and any talk of collapse is Malthusian,” then you’ve connected disconnect things.
I don’t mean buying offsets or any other scam. I’m not living sustainably even taking two-and-a-half years and counting to fill a load of trash and not flying. I’m like everyone: I have to balance conflicting interests inside me and a culture that doesn’t accept living sustainably. I live closer to sustainably than many Americans, but I still pollute. That is, I don’t live sustainably, but I’ve moved closer to it than anyone I know and find that each time I move more toward sustainability I’m glad at myself for the results.
The more who live sustainably, the more who will try
I suspect no one reading these words has tried to live sustainably. I haven’t. I’m just trying to approach it, but I know many humans who have lived sustainably. All humans did for most of human history. Many do today, though not likely within a thousand miles of you, nor that your plane trips will bring you closer to. If you haven’t, you don’t know how easy or hard it would be. I can tell you the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more you will find people around you coming along.
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