We cannot end climate change individually. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try
At the beginning of 2022, I set a goal for myself: I will not buy new clothes for a year.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t buy clothes. This meant they must be old. Clothes that have been around for decades are no longer guilty of extracting raw materials from the earth and adding more carbon to our atmosphere.
New to me, but no New.
I was three weeks away from starting my master’s program in sustainability management at Columbia University, and I felt the need to live up to the expectations of how a sustainability student should live: by consuming less and, if necessary, consuming responsibly.
I made it just five months before I took the plunge and bought a button from Uniqlo. To reduce the betrayal of our planet, I chose a 100% cotton shirt. At least it wasn’t plastic.
I felt hypocritical and guilty. But many would argue that small, unstable decisions like the one I made don’t matter much. The author of stability Elizabeth Klein wrote That the “ethical consumer,” the person who only buys organic and fair trade, is powerless against corporations and their quest for endless financial growth. He says he sleeps well in “immoral pajamas” because he knows it’s not our job to fix the planet. It depends on companies and governments.
I do not sleep well with this knowledge.
I wonder how we can come together collectively and demand change if we don’t change anything in our individual lives. It’s true that we don’t have many options to live an eco-friendly life. Most of us don’t have the means to grow our own food or travel without a car or compost.
We don’t have the time or resources to audit every company we buy from to verify their commitment to sustainability, and even if we did, we’d likely find few truly green products and services to choose from. However, I’m trying to see how that translates to buy anything, do anything, it doesn’t matter.
Many of the people closest to me are also white and upper middle class, educated and aware of the dangers that climate change brings. They are people who care about the world around them and have the tools to help improve it, so I encouraged them to set sustainable goals for themselves.
We are a privileged group, one that has arguably benefited from the same power structures that have led us to this doom-or-die moment. We can feel a little bad that if we’re not doing the right thing, at least we’re doing something that’s less wrong. Our choices matter. It’s frustrating and confusing that my friends and family have mostly stuck to their daily routines.
My sister often worries about the future of our planet. She also recently told me she had to buy three new outfits for her birthday weekend.
An old friend has expressed his anger at governments for not better implementing environmental policies and regulations. He plans to work in big oil.
My dad partly blames Jeff Bezos for many of the world’s environmental problems, but he orders something new from Amazon almost every day.
I am a student of one of the leading sustainability programs in the country. I take long showers, I love plane travel, and I bought a few tops I don’t need because they were on sale.
Once, a classmate expressed the importance of equity in sustainability, stating that there is no real progress if groups are marginalized. Then he admitted that of course he impulsively buys things he doesn’t need, and that this habit is just a victim of the system he lives in.
I don’t buy it. We are not cogs in a car. We can make better choices, though some are arguably easier than others. Eating less red meat is a simple change. Learning to feel content with what we currently have takes time, but it can be done. Buying an electric vehicle is still out of reach for many, but not all. Those of us with the privilege of choice should use it wisely, form new habits that better match our morals, and practice what we preach.
I recently spent an hour looking online for swimwear. I didn’t buy anything, my choice didn’t save the world, but it may have helped make it worse.
Isabelle Osquark is a master’s student in sustainability management at Columbia University.