Climate change is one of the many looming dooms that in the year 2020 feels increasingly urgent and inescapable. Thinking back, I don’t remember when I first became aware that the planet I would someday inherit was melting and dying and full of propellant-torn holes. But it was early. Third grade was around when my preoccupation with saving the planet kicked into gear. Spurred by the books and websites we had read encouraging children to be climate heroes, my best friend and I started a “save the planet” club. We were the only members, and the only club activity was the two of us writing a one-page newsletter about an endangered species and mailing it to our immediate family with a plea for money. We did this maybe three times before losing interest and forgot to actually send the donations to the World Wildlife Fund and their charismatic megafauna panda logo. So, yes, we did in fact save the planet, and you’re welcome.
I have all kinds of memories of these clumsy attempts to put inspiration into action. There was no shortage of environmental activism aimed at kids in the 2000s — all of my favorite TV shows had an episode on the virtues of recycling and cleaning up litter. I read books with titles like “101 Ways You Can Help Save the Planet Before You’re 12!” that taught me about compost and compact fluorescent bulbs. I wasted hours on a PBS Kids website called EekoWorld where a monkey-shark-snake-bird chimera named Cheeko quizzed you on eco-friendly choices. I devotedly learned all of these lessons, but often the tips and tricks didn’t work as well at home as on the page. There’s a four-star Amazon review for the “101 Ways” book that probably sums up my parents’ feelings on the whole thing: “gave the kids something to think about. some of it was dumb.”
Of all these sources of ecological wisdom, perhaps the most fascinatingly unattainable was the Zero Waste Home blog. Run by a woman named Bea Johnson, the blog followed her journey guiding her family to produce “Zero Waste,” or as little waste as possible, in their day-to-day lives. The yearly amount of non-recyclable, non-compostable trash they produced as a family of four fit into a mason jar. And not a normal size jar, either: a pint-size one. Like. A pint glass worth of trash and that’s it. What!!! How??? She was a god. The blog was like a holy text, describing the best possible way a person could live. I loved it.
Now, the blog link saved deep in my computer bookmarks is out of date — there’s a new, shinier website, promoting talks, a book, an Instagram. The content, though, is how I remembered. There are still descriptions of ways to avoid waste — buying food in bulk in jars, using baking soda as toothpaste, avoiding plastic at all costs. As a kid, I remember finding most of the tips delightful — Canning vegetables! So cottagecore! — but there were also parts I resisted even then. The biggest part of accumulating zero waste is refusing what will eventually become waste, so Bea’s children’s laminated art projects had to stay at school. That hit close to third-grade home. Maybe there were some sacrifices that were too big for the planet to ask for.
So I’ve never come close to going zero waste. I don’t even know if I live any more sustainably than your average person. I absorbed all that content and for what, lingering guilt for leaving food on my plate? Nagging people to turn off the lights? Being vigilant about turning off the water when I brush my teeth? These questions about the environment are still on my mind, for sure, but shouldn’t I have actually saved something by now? Where did I go wrong? Where did our world go wrong?
Looking at the blog now, it’s clear how much time and energy the zero-waste lifestyle must take. Clearly, Bea’s methods are not realistic for everyone. We can’t all argue with the man at the Whole Foods meat counter about whether he can give you your meat in a glass jar from home. Most daunting to me, though, are the descriptions Bea gives of navigating other people. Waste is everywhere, and so avoiding it means fending off waste from everyone in her life, from the companies sending her junk mail to her mother giving her kids LEGOs for Christmas. As someone stressed out even by phone calls, that amount of confrontation feels well beyond what I could ever bring myself to do. And at the end of the day, the Zero Waste Home is also a blog with all the implications of a blog — the aesthetic, the self-help tips, the ways in which it assures you that going Zero Waste will make you so much happier than you were before. Maybe it was all an unrealistic fantasy from the beginning, something I believed because I was eight and so shouldn’t feel bad about not achieving.
This cycle of exhaustion and doubt is where I think I ended up — after my initial excitement had faded, after my efforts had died with whimpers and especially after I learned more about the scope of the problem. Recycling isn’t as helpful as you want it to be. The actions of very few wealthy people and companies will have a much greater immediate impact on the world than any of your actions can. The people who will face the greatest impacts of climate change are the most vulnerable and, generally, the people who have done the least to cause it. We don’t have much time.
In the face of the enormity of the issue, it’s important that the steps we take to address it are solid and strong, but sweeping policies can come with big drawbacks and small actions may not even be worth our time. The fact that climate change is so overwhelming factors into it, too, because the more uncertain and terrible everything seems, the harder it is to make yourself do a bunch of inconvenient stuff that isn’t going to save the planet anyway. The more stressful my life is, the more I need unsustainable things like fast food hamburgers at midnight. It’s like the rush from procrastination: not really good for you, but the relief of something easy is so good, and the idea of thinking about a problem for another single second is so godawful.
Maybe this way of thinking is the natural result of trying to solve a complex issue with an oversimplified understanding of the problem — of course, I wasn’t a climate hero in third grade. Actually, I question the logic of focusing so much energy on educating kids about climate change rather than adults. It feels almost like giving up before even getting started: If you don’t think adults, with all their nuanced critical thinking, can understand the full scope of the problem and still feel like they can do something about it, the answer is not to sugarcoat it, feed it to the next generation and hope for the best. I’ve moved from thinking the problem was easy and solvable to realizing it is incredibly complex and possibly hopeless.
But not only is this conclusion unsatisfying, it’s totally unhelpful and in fact actively bad — draining my energy, preempting any kind of progress. Maybe the problem is that it’s not a conclusion at all. If my initial easy optimism was a child’s fantasy, maybe my current terrified nihilism is just a teenage emo phase, and there’s a better, harder place to go from here. Like how I’ve felt about Dora the Explorer over the years: I was obsessed, then I hated it! It was not cool!!! And now I’ve moved on. Dora didn’t prepare me to live in a complex human society, but, y’know, I’m figuring it out. Did my third-grade self learn how to save the world? No. But now I’m an adult, I know how hard this is and I guess I still want to try.
As far as finding effective ways to promote sustainability, there’s a lot that I think the Zero Waste Home does right: the emphasis on refusing/reducing waste rather than recycling, the outreach to a larger community and larger systems of power and maybe most of all, the idea that you can look at your whole life through the lens of what is best for the planet. The very first entry on the blog, from Dec. 24, 2009, helps melt my cynicism. Titled “Here I Come,” the post begins, “all right, here I am … I created this blog site a couple months ago and could not get it started … just did not know where to get it started … My zero waste seems so small and meaningless in the scheme of things that I did not think it was worth elaborating about, I did not think that it could make a difference.” Well, her book has been translated into 25 languages now, and I, at least, still remember this blog 11 years later. Whatever the Zero Waste Home’s limits are, clearly Bea’s efforts have made some difference.
Blogs like Zero Waste Home can only go so far: There is no sustainability bible. No one knows the challenges of your life and the ways in which you can realistically live more sustainably better than you. At the same time, there is no neutral option: Everything you do has some impact on the environment. It can be a small help or hurt, or a big one. But our actions are tied, ultimately, to consequences. And finally, there is no alone: It’s an ecosystem. We’re all connected. Your actions aren’t happening in a vacuum from your neighbor’s, and none of us are going to do much of anything by ourselves.
In that light, I’m embracing a new idea about the way I think about and practice sustainability: Gave the kids something to think about. Some of it was dumb. But not all of it, right? Some of it really mattered.
Gemma Yoo | email@example.com