On failing to be the change you wish to see in the world

Chris Jordan, Midway

Several years ago after watching a video, I deliberately erected a bubble of ignorance around environmental issues. This video, not four minutes long, showed that birds on a tiny remote island were dying. Their corpses decayed to reveal a skeleton stuffed with an assortment of colorful plastic rings and caps and doo-dads.

I was depressed for months after watching it. I didn’t want to be in a species so careless and cruel. These birds… just following instincts to eat. And this plastic… used so flippantly, each piece just one thoughtless moment in one person’s life.

I resolved to stop consuming single-use plastic. I was determined. I would do it! And yet all that determination dissolved a mere 48 hours later, buckled by a mundane desire for some food dressed in plastic wrap.

But what was worse than my personal plastic consumption was my livelihood: my job was literally to sell (more and more!) glass bottles with little black plastic caps. Black plastic caps that would exist for thousands of years as false food for undiscerning mouths.

Here I was, the person stuffing an increasing quantity of plastic caps into these birds stomachs.

Hello, I am the problem. 👋

**

I didn’t know how to deal with discovering I was the villain. I didn’t mean to be the villain—I had obtained that job from the sincerest desire to find a way to make a living doing something good in the world. The bottles I was selling were from a company trying to protect endangered plant species by supporting their sustainable agriculture. “People, planet, profit”—I thought it was possible. This job was supposed to be my way of making a difference.

With the new information about the problem with plastics, I should have dropped everything and devoted my life to pursuing better eco-plastic solutions and their adoption. But I was tired and busy and stressed, and honestly more than a little worried about money. The hard thing to do was figure out a way to help. The easy thing to do was to just shut my eyes.

I followed the path of least resistance. I made my eyes blur over environmental headlines. I found a few organizations working on solutions and sent money to those better, stronger people who were capable of keeping their eyes and minds open when looking at a problem.

And that’s how I lived with myself without changing much.

I told myself: things aren’t black and white, good and bad. It’s a complicated world in shades of gray.

I told myself: humans are just one step in the process of evolution, and we’re making all this plastic for a new type of microbe that will eat all the plastic and evolve into some new line of plastic-based life form. After all, we’re literally taking all the remains from species past and creating plastic with it. We are nature itself in the process of self-transformation. Yes, it looks like death and destruction, but this is how nature is. And the sun will eat the earth one day, anyway.

I told myself: everything will die and nothing lasts—why not sell some plastic bottle caps before the heat death of the universe?

These stories helped me hide from my disappointment that I was not a better person who would drop everything and spend my life fighting plastics in the ocean. I was no person of virtue; I actually did not really care; I was too weak to overcome the inertia of my selfishness, apathy, and averageness. And even this bitter news wouldn’t motivate me to change my behavior. I would suffer only the mildest of inconveniences to care for the earth and its beings.

I told myself: Only rare humans succeed in spending their lives doing something other than following their evolutionary impulses. My averageness really does make sense, statistically.

**

Several years later, I had made a nice life on this foundation of stories. It wasn’t perfect, but it was… good. I had puzzled out something of a career. I had discovered the lively and livable Berlin, escaping the US and the constant reminder of Trump’s election. I had even at last tracked down a shampoo that spun my frizz into ringlets 2/3 washings.

I was one of the billions whose life seemed to promise getting better. I turned the pages of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, grinning at how lucky I was to be born at the feet of unrelenting progress. I drifted to sleep dreaming of how I would one day improve the conditions of factory-farmed animals, own an apartment, and cross Tokyo off my must-see list. The future was bright.

It was in this phase of optimism that I decided it was stupid to willfully keep myself ignorant of environmental issues. I was stronger now. I could handle the truth.

But, as I turned the pages of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a book that translates the science of climate change into its likely consequences, I learned that while I had been getting stronger, the truth had been getting more unbearable.

Re-envisioning my future as a future with climate change felt a bit like a mother being informed she would miscarry. An expecting mother, excited for a beautiful next chapter in her life, receives news that there are… problems. That future she was so sure was right around the corner was… a dream. And while reorienting herself to this new bleak reality, it dawns on her that she still has to go through the motions of delivering a baby anyhow.

Likewise, the happy life I was looking forward to was in a world that would not exist. The world that would exist was one with increasing millions of displaced people, food and water shortages, and regular catastrophic weather events—all of these forces making peace and prosperity that much more difficult.

The world was fucked, and like how the mother of a dead baby had to deliver it all the same, I had to keep up the act of paying rent in an unfolding tragedy.

I had not taken action years ago, I had not helped humanity find a way to reconcile endless economic growth with a finite environment. And now we—everyone busy and stressed and tired and worried about money—are on a fast track to a really shitty reality.

And my life, if my previous actions are a reliable predictor, won’t help a thing.


Afterword: This post was written as an exercise to examine my frustrations and hopefully see beyond my blinding feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Writing it helped me to start letting go of my anger about my past inaction and renewed my commitment to help protect the environment. Instead of feeling like I have to do everything to help, I am focusing on what I can do right now. So for now my focus is on avoiding animal products, avoiding flying whenever possible, hosting clothing swaps to promote reuse, and donating a % of my income to organizations who are making meaningful change.

If you’re interested in these topics, here’s some things to check out:

5Gyres is an organization that helps spread awareness on the issues of plastic.

Cool Earth halts rainforest deforestation and thus climate change.

Giving What We Can is an organization that promotes donating 10% of your income as a way to create positive change. Giving What We Can was eye-opening to me because I realized that without changing much in my life now, I can work to empower others to make a difference.

The Uninhabitable Earth is a great article that covers the 101 of why to care about climate change. If you want to dig more into the details, the book under the same name is likewise stellar (and beautifully written).