Stop Telling Your Friends to Recycle

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I’m sure you’ve heard those little tips and tricks for being “eco-friendly” plenty of times -- in fact, you could probably rattle off a litany of ways to reduce your carbon footprint right now. Carpool to work, print on both sides of the page, turn out the lights when you leave the room, on and on ad nauseum. We’re steeped in a progressive culture that places value on reminding ourselves and each other to perform these eco-friendly behaviors.  

Not only am I intimately familiar with these little eco-tips, I used to be the one giving them out. In middle school I was that kid who totally missed the irony of printing out a hundred flyers urging people to “Save the trees!”. I spent the better part of freshman year begging my parents to trade in our 15 year-old gas guzzler, and I still experience anxiety when I hear a faucet running for more than five seconds.

And while my obsession with “eco-friendly” behavior was a gateway drug to the hard-core hallucinogen of leftist climate politics, I now see that framing conversations about environmentalism and climate change around these behaviors isn’t just depressingly ineffective—it actually pulls our focus from the political elements of climate change, thereby weakening the imperative for meaningful climate action. This is for three reasons.  

 

One: It discourages political action.

These trite tips and truisms on how to be environmentally conscious are almost always centered on personal lifestyle details, often within the home. Change how you eat. How you shower. How you get to work. How you heat and cool your home. This sends the message that environmentalism and climate awareness is something private and domestic rather than collective and public.

In a literal way, it makes sense to say that since climate change is caused by heat-trapping emissions, we should all stop doing things that create emissions; therefore doing my part means not doing emitting behaviors, and if we all do our part we will end climate change.

If only it were that simple. But this is obviously not representative of the way society (or physics) operates. Climate change won’t leave you alone just because you followed all the eco-tips; in fact, climate change will affect you even in the near-impossible event that you completely eliminate carbon emissions from your personal life. The reality of climate science demands that we focus on collective action rather than placing value on private, individual practices.    

Bottom line: The governing bodies and industries of the world are constantly negotiating how much polluters should be regulated, how compliance will be reported, who will pay the price for loss and damage, who gets access to which resources. If we are primarily focused on handy ways we can reduce our energy bill, we are unwittingly being left out of those negotiations.

 

Two: It creates complacency.

Recycling your cereal boxes and feeling like you’ve “done your part” to end climate change is about as laudable as a white person not using the n-word and feeling like she’s “done her part” to dismantle systemic racism. By all means, keep on recycling your cereal boxes. But if you only hear about environmentalism when a friend chides you for using the wrong garbage can, you’re going to think that using the right garbage can is the shining example of environmentalism. This advances a performative form of progressivism; we become focused on demonstrating to ourselves and each other that we’re good progressives instead of taking results-oriented political action. In other words, if you get a pat on the back for doing all those private little eco-behaviors, there’s far less of a reason to participate in political climate action because you’re lulled into believing that you’ve already made a good and meaningful contribution.

Finally, constant reminders about these eco-behaviors create complacency because they make us feel safe and comfortable. They make us feel like the most miniscule of sacrifices (i.e. remembering to bring a reusable shopping bag when we go to the store) are all that we owe each other. It is incredibly easy to remain secure in the belief that we can only control our private homes and private lives. It’s a lot harder to recognize how deeply interconnected we are, especially when it comes to our shared use of the planet and our experience of climate change. With this difficult realization comes a profound sense of responsibility to and reliance on one another. Focusing on private eco-behaviors gives us an easy way out because it doesn’t demand that we rise to the challenge of collective participation.

 

Three: It lets big polluters off the hook.

If we’re busy reminding our friends that LED lights are so much better for the environment than incandescents, the big polluters of the world win. Not because LED lights aren’t better, but because conversations like that create a cultural understanding that the biggest environmental problems to be solved are happening at the level of the individual.

For example, if I say “food waste” and your first response is to feel guilty about a tupperware of moldy Chinese food at the back of your fridge, it becomes difficult to hold Big Ag accountable for leveling the Amazon rainforest to produce thousands of tons of food that won’t even make it to the grocery store. Simply put, framing environmentalism as a list of little things that well-meaning families can do to reduce their carbon footprint draws the attention away from the industries and specific corporations that are actively depleting our resources on a massive scale.    

Beyond that, focusing on things you can change about your lifestyle to be environmentally conscious is often downright profitable for these polluting corporations. Think about how often an “eco-tip” involves telling you to buy something. An energy star refrigerator. A Prius. A new kind of dish detergent. It’s not that these things aren’t technically “better for the environment,” but constant exposure to a running list of things you can purchase to “help save the planet” enforces the mentality that the best, most responsible thing you can do for the environment is buy stuff.

 

At this point you might object, “Surely you’re not saying that I shouldn’t eat local and organic, or that it’s bad for the climate if I bike to work?”

No I’m not saying that, and don’t call me Shirley. If you want to eat local and organic, go for it! That’s not the point. The point is that while biking and eating local might have a positive (though incalculably small) impact on the climate scientifically speaking, talking about it a lot and telling your friends to do the same and counting it as “doing your part” all have a negative impact on climate activism politically speaking.

This is not to dismiss the significance of pollution and carbon emissions that we each produce in our daily lives. We absolutely need to find ways to drive less, treat our trash differently, eat sustainably, power our homes without pumping carbon into the air, and so on. But individual lifestyle choices like biking to work (or even getting ten or a hundred of your friends to bike to work) are not sufficient long-term solutions. Meaningful climate action -- that is, necessary and effective action that might have a shot at preventing more catastrophic warming -- means persistent, vocal, and collective participation. It means challenging our political imaginations and reorganizing our societies.

But that’s so much harder than turning out the lights when I leave the room! Yes, of course it is. Of course organizing a campaign to democratize your town’s utility grid is harder than using LED light bulbs and taking shorter showers. Of course driving a Prius is way sexier that pressuring your local representative to commit to cutting-edge municipal waste treatment technology (and yes, that’s the first time “Prius” and “sexy” have been used in the same sentence). But that’s what real climate action means.

Impulses to recycle, to use post-consumer products, to compost, are good impulses—they come from the desire to be responsible and participatory.  Perhaps in the face of an unknowably complex globalized economy in which mega-corporations spew poison into our air and water unrelentingly, the only thing that saves us from falling into helpless despair is the knowledge that we are taking action in the opposite direction, however small. This desire for action is one of our greatest assets, but it has to be transformed into meaningful political engagement. We have to hold each other accountable. We have to shift our focus from individual behavior to collective action.  And in order to do that, we have to stop telling each other to recycle.

Soren Dudley is a Political Theory PhD student at Harvard University. Her research interests include leftist thought and critiques of capitalism, especially as they pertain to climate change. She tweets @sorendudley.

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