This year, I was more enraged than inspired when Earth Day rolled around. Scrolling through Instagram and swiping through stories with silly stickers made my blood boil more than it made my heart flutter. Comments like “love you Mother Earth” and “give nature a chance” made my eyebrows furl and my smile turn low and flat — what a vapid, if not intentionally shallow, attempt to “celebrate” Earth Day, I thought.
Photos of beaches and bikinis and tree swings in grass meadows and the shade that all the oaks and willows and birches provide — all coated with a saturated filter and cropped to fit one’s Instagram theme.
These posts were nothing more than an inane attempt to celebrate our Mother Earth, as if what she needs more of is fruitless appreciation, rather than fierce protection. We shouldn’t be hitting “post” as much as we should be gnawing our teeth at incompetent and ineffectual legislators who, at every turn, deflect their responsibility as lawmakers. For me, every day is Earth Day, and though I am far from a saint, I spend each day reflecting on my actions and re-evaluating whether I am doing my best — not just on April 22.
And though I miss the flavor of bacon on my breakfast sandwiches and the sweet saltiness of salami slices, and despite how difficult it is to cut my showers short and make my feet work for my destination rather than the gas pedal, I do it not for the benefit of myself, but for the benefit of our planet — Earth.
Because, believe it or not, sustainability is not always aesthetically pleasing — think about how gross compost actually is. Gritty, individual actions are often not as “Instagrammable” as posting pretty landscapes is — they’re not concerned with aesthetics, or any particular social rewards. And, expressing gratitude for something given is way easier than reciprocating said kindness.
Because sustainability sells
Yet somehow, much of what we call sustainability — that which we define as environmentalism — has come to garner a particular look. Not necessarily a fad, but something of the sort. As organizations ponder on how to implement sustainability into their business models, I can’t help but feel like brands are choosing to do so for selfish interests. Whether it be for increased profit margins, more positive consumer perceptions or access to new markets, environmentalism has become a tool of capitalism, rather than a weapon against it.
And though their actions aren’t always necessarily performed in good faith, some companies do try and make a real effort to integrate sustainability into their business models. Others, if not many, understand that nothing sells better in 2022 than environmentalism, or, the appearance of it.
SHEIN, the infamous fast-fashion clothing giant with brutal working conditions, continues to hold commitments to protecting the environment, supporting the community and empowering entrepreneurs. However, despite their claims to ethical production, SHEIN is the worst of the worst: the brand’s notoriously cheap, poorly-made clothing has accelerated throwaway-fashion culture, and their factories have reportedly violated numerous Chinese labor laws.
Have you ever wondered how brands like SHEIN can produce upwards of 6,000 new products each day, and at significantly lower price points than their competitors? All of that clothing, new or old, has to go somewhere. And, once we consider the secondary effects that such companies have on the environment, like how fashion produces more emissions than international aviation and shipping combined, you begin to wonder how these businesses can even exist in the first place.
And that’s the fundamental problem of environmentalism through capitalism — overconsumption can’t be solved with more consumption.
Yes, it may feel good to purchase soaps from Lush packaged in paper instead of plastic and share your commitment to using Oatly over cow’s milk on social media. But you are not really helping anyone except the companies who understand the idea that sustainability sells.
Because it’s not hard
There is truly no right way to approach the concept of environmental friendliness — no one can really tell how to do it right, nor how to do it wrong. Just like dolphin-safe labels on tuna cans cannot guarantee the safety of dolphins, much less other endangered or vulnerable species caught as bycatch. Neither can any assurance from other brands, agencies or even governments provide you with a sure-fire way to save the world.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes, the right step toward environmentalism takes just a little common sense.
Obviously, start thinking twice, or even thrice, about buying something before you toss it into your shopping, especially if it’s packaged in plastic. And you may interpret this as tree-hugger vegan propaganda but my point still stands; you have an opportunity three times a day to help the environment, and turning away from meat and fish, even if for just one meal a day, can help tremendously. Red meat is one of the worst offenders when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions.
Washing your laundry in buckets and hanging them up on clotheslines is not something deemed to be Instagrammable, nor is it particularly ingenious, but it sure would cut down on your household’s water usage. And while buying wooden toothbrushes or silicone straws can be a hearty step toward cutting down on indestructible waste, it doesn’t beat out using a worn toothbrush for a few weeks more and abstaining from straws in general.
From the kitchen to the bathroom to the beach, there are thousands of articles out there to help you achieve a more sustainable lifestyle — you just have to know what to look for. Some solutions, such as having fewer kids and installing a bidet, require a bit more effort, but no one said there’s anything wrong with starting small.
Because our politicians don’t care
Environmentalism doesn’t just stop at what we do within our homes — policy matters just as much.
That’s why goosebumps travel up my forearms when I hear economists trying to place a price tag on nature conservation. Or, more pressingly, when I observed the Supreme Court reverse the Clean Air Act just last month, which once granted the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate pollutants like methane and carbon dioxide. Despite widespread public outrage and expert opposition, a handful of Supreme Court justices were capable of nullifying legislation that protected so much of our planet’s wellbeing.
The big men in their big suits aren’t listening to us, and it’s honestly getting to a point where I don’t believe in the power of republics anymore. We are the next Rome, it feels like.
And we should be worried. We should be paralyzed with fear and nauseous with incapacity. As of right now, the way we perceive environmentalism is exactly what’s keeping us so stagnant, and it’s thanks to the words we allow politicians to use and companies to plaster on billboards, the rhetoric we allow to spew from the mouths of economists and presidents and climate change deniers alike.
Because the planet isn’t just ours
The environment doesn’t have to be worth anything to you for you to want to save it. It doesn’t have to provide a certain quantifiable “ecosystem service” to be worth protecting. Composts don’t have to smell nice in order for people to continue composting. And, landscapes don’t have to possess unique features in order to be made into national parks and forests.
Beyond our overconsumption and the rest of the foils that come with our skewed anthropocentrism, the people who have power, especially worldwide governments, are just not doing enough — but how do we change that? How do we approach the topic of “saving the planet” in a way that remains effective?
If we restrict our focus to remain within national borders, one of the more pressing issues is that we need more national parks. We need to stir up intense efforts for land preservation and conservation, regardless of the damage it will do to the wallets of the 1%. Idaho is the only state in the West without its own national park, and, though many may cringe at the thought of places like Kansas and Oklahoma, America’s typically “ugly” states house important features like endangered wildlife habitats, ancient Native American sites and fossilized dinosaur tracks.
Beauty should not be a deciding factor of which lands are worth preserving, just as economic valuation should not be the vehicle through which we curb climate change. Our relationship with the environment around us runs much deeper than price tags on ecosystems and paper straws and beautification — but we have yet to figure out exactly what it can be.
Because we’re going to die if we don’t fix things
It’s scary. It should be absolutely frightening. It should stop your heart to find out that, by 2050, we will have more plastic in our oceans than fish. And that for every piece of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean, there are 99 pieces of plastic resting on the ocean floor. Furthermore, 99% of that plastic is unaccounted for, probably clinging to your sushi and fish sticks as microscopic toxins and carcinogens like DDT, PCBs and mercury.
The damage that humans have done to the planet is staggering and debilitating, and we have yet to realize that, as we kill off everything else, we’re also striking nails into our own coffins.
Somehow, all this information has yet to alter our habits. We are still more likely to engage in hedonic purchases when we bring reusable bags to stores, instead of using plastic bags, because, well, it’s easier to brush off our bad actions when we think we’re doing good.
Same goes for paper straws — using them over plastic straws doesn’t make you a saint, but abstaining from them completely can bring you one step closer.
My point about figuring out our relationship with the environment is more salient than ever. How are we to take strides toward positive change if none of us even have a heading? Are we to keep spinning in circles, round and round, as politicians leave environmental terrorism unchecked and businesses cash in on their false promises? Is all hope truly lost?
No. At least not in my opinion.
The futility of the situation can seem choking, a hazard to both our physical and mental wellbeing, but that shouldn’t warrant a state of paralysis. On the contrary, let the nausea push you further. Educate your loved ones about the uselessness of “eco-friendly” consumption, and urge them to stop supporting businesses that use environmentalism as a marketing strategy. Trust no one. Do your own research.
Get your hands dirty, whether that’s in the soil or in the laundry of suspicious legislators. Whatever you do, do not stop fighting. If you’re the type of person who is driven by rage (and I know I am), keep reading the news. Stay informed. Let your vision turn red as you read about birds ingesting irremovable plastics and 200 to 2,000 species going extinct each year, as long as it guides you to the right place.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the state of the world we’re in, and there certainly isn’t a guidebook on how to deal with such issues. However, the most eloquent and lasting thing you can do is to start now.
I beg you — move your activism beyond Instagram, and shift it into a place of real change, please. Before it’s too late for us all.
Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.