Climate change is ravaging the planet. Wildlife populations are diminishing rapidly around the world. The Earth is dying — and it’s all our fault.
This mantra cycles through my head every day, guiding my actions as I move through my daily routine.
“Can you turn off the lights?” “Did you make sure to shut off the TV before you left the room?” “You don’t need to keep the water running while you’re washing dishes; you only need it for rinsing.”
I have said all of these things and more to my roommates on a regular basis. Even the smallest action left undone fills me with anxiety about the possible negative impact it could have on the environment. I stopped eating red meat. I attend climate protests at state Capitol buildings. I walk or take the bus on campus. My mindset has gone beyond just doing what I can to promote the environmentalist cause — my stressors have instead morphed into a never-ending checklist that must be completed or the world will fall apart. Yet, even if I do accomplish every task, my personal actions still won’t be enough to stop what’s already happening. It won’t be enough to erase what generations of human activity, industry and development have already done to the natural world.
The barrage of warning signs indicating the planet’s Armageddon are inescapable in today’s world. Reports of dangerous weather events, species endangerment and worsening climate emergencies are constant reminders of the state of the Earth. Whether seen on the news, viewed on an Instagram story or learned in class, distressing details of these issues flood every medium of communication. It was precisely the prevalence of these crises that inspired me to pursue a minor in Environment when coming to the University of Michigan. And despite knowing my education in environmental science will only make me more prepared to take on the challenges of climate change, it also reminds me of everything I’m up against.
It’s hard to feel inspired to create change when your classes are designed to inform you about increasing emissions and the detrimental effects of the Anthropocene.
All of these experiences force me to constantly ask myself: Are my individual actions pointless? Do we have to completely redesign our lives to make a “sustainable” world? Is it too late to do anything?
Sustainability is Trending
In an age of widespread environmental awareness and activism, the concept of a sustainable lifestyle has become more mainstream, especially among members of Gen Z. Reusable water bottles, thrifted clothing and metal straws are staples in many young people’s homes. Many restaurants, and even U-M dining halls, have shifted to compostable packaging to reduce their plastic waste.
Large corporations have joined in on the trend to appeal to today’s environmentally conscious consumers. In 2018, Starbucks changed its disposable cups to a design that doesn’t require the use of a straw. In April of this year, they launched their Earth Month Game: an interactive experience in which customers can play games of chance or complete Tetris-like puzzles right from their phones. As they complete the levels, players can choose which environmental initiative they’d like the company to support, including clean water and habitat rehabilitation. Participants also get the chance to win in-store prizes while learning about what drink or food substitutions they can make for a more sustainable diet.
On a surface level, these actions show great initiative. In a society where a small number of companies are responsible for almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, seeing large corporations actively spread information on sustainable consumption seems like a step in the right direction. But there is a caveat to consider: Though these big-name businesses are promoting sustainable practices, their approach puts all of the responsibility on the consumer instead of the producer. In turn, they fail to adapt the very actions they’re advocating for. And in reality, the “steps” they have taken to become more environmentally conscious may not even truly be helping: less than 1% of the world’s plastic pollution comes from disposable straws and the combination of their strawless lids and cup actually equates to a greater amount of plastic than their original design.
Starbucks is just one of many companies that advertises their commitment to sustainable practices while neglecting to examine or address the actions that are actually the most problematic. This phenomenon, called greenwashing, allows companies to market their “green” actions for a better public image without making true positive change.
Volkswagen and IKEA have also been confronted with similar issues of greenwashing. In 2015, the car company used a specially designed device to pass emissions tests without actually reducing their carbon waste. As for IKEA, the company has historically been praised for its sustainable practices, including a “buy-back” program where they repurchased customers’ old furniture for resale at a reduced price. Yet despite this admirable effort, the furniture conglomerate was later linked to illegal logging practices in Ukraine.
In many cases, it seems like sustainability is used as a marketing ploy instead of an actual commitment to improvement, with companies putting their “best foot forward” for the sake of advertising and consumer appeal. Dr. Stuart Kirsch, a professor of Anthropology at the University, criticized the mass market’s commodification of the term “sustainability” in an interview. He emphasized that those who do pursue eco-friendly actions will be better off in the long run as the government implements more environmental regulations.
“I have raised concerns about the ease with which we use the term ‘sustainability,’ to the point that we sometimes lose track of what it actually means,” Kirsch said. “Corporations benefit from their appropriation of the terms of their critique, claiming to be responsible, sustainable and transparent while watering these terms down or redefining them in ways that reproduce the status quo.”
But the issue of sustainability doesn’t just affect large corporations — small businesses feel the impact on a much more day-to-day scale. Due to their size, non-corporate companies are often left behind in the race for sustainability, with items such as compostable packaging often much more expensive than other standardized products.
If these large-scale corporations are doing little, or nothing, to improve environmental conditions, placing pressure on the individual to change their habits can feel overwhelming and almost impossible in a modern capitalist society with so many other issues to address. In her Ted Talk, “What to do when climate change feels unstoppable,” activist Clover Hogan dives into this concept of “eco-anxiety:” a helpless, counterproductive and guilty feeling that many young people experience as we witness disaster after disaster arise as a result of climate change and human activity. She specifies that eco-anxiety has culminated in a surge of mental health issues for many individuals around the world.
This eco-anxiety is the root of my mindset as I complete my daily checklist, repeating my mantra in my head. But why is this mentality so particularly prevalent among individuals in our age group? Hogan perfectly articulates why Gen Z-ers especially feel this immense pressure to solve the world’s environmental problems: “Young people today have not created this reality. We’ve inherited it. Yet we’re told we’re the last generation with a chance to save the fate of humanity … And in the war against nature, young minds are the collateral.”
Dominance of the Collective
In the case of sustainability, the dissonance between individual and collective action can result in fear or distress over the choices we make: Should we even bother playing our part in the push for environmentalism if we don’t make substantial change, or should we shoulder the burden of everyone else not advocating?
It’s an example of the collective action problem in which individuals believe that their role in a large scenario will not make a difference in the grand scope of the issue. This occurs within many contexts, including election voting. If our one vote won’t really change the direction of the individual race, why should we even go to the polls when the thousands of other votes collectively will decide the outcome?
It’s difficult to argue the validity of this statement. One drop in the ocean is simply not likely to stand out from all the others. But this doesn’t mean individual actions — if taken as part of a bigger whole — will not make a difference.
Dr. Thomas Princen, professor of Environmental Planning at the School for Environment and Sustainability, emphasized the importance of individual advocacy even if you feel it’s insufficient or pointless.
“For individuals, the logic is whatever you do won’t make a difference,” Princen said. “But what you do individually sets the stage for the collective. We’re social creatures. We are influenced by the larger culture, institutions, and so forth, but we also influence them. We have agency and we try to do what we can.”
When speaking on the overwhelming feelings associated with taking on a larger issue, Princen emphasized the importance of remaining realistic.
“The task is twofold,” Princen said. “One is to be conscious of, let’s say, one’s own consumption patterns, but not obsessed. Not purist. And the other is to act at a larger scale.”
The U-M Student Sustainability Coalition actively embraces and utilizes this collective action mindset to promote sustainability on campus.
LSA senior Shewar Ibadat, finance and operations officer of the group, explained how they operate on a “collective impact framework” to unite individuals and groups who wish to contribute to this mission. Even if the organization doesn’t believe their goals align with sustainability specifically, SSC advises them on how they can incorporate this idea into their practice.
“There’s a lot of individuals on campus that are very excited or motivated about sustainability and want to see a lot of change take place,” Ibadat said. “But harnessing that or using that individual energy (can be difficult), so we connect them with student orgs or other like-minded individuals and bring them together in a collective way so we can just amplify that to the next level.”
A Step in the Right Direction
Hearing news about environmental crises is stressful. No matter what actions you’re taking to stop the extent of the damage, it’s disheartening to see issues like climate change get progressively worse. It’s even more demoralizing knowing that our society’s dominant economic systems may be progressing this damage, as capitalism and consumerism have often been linked to pollution and exploitation of resources. It seems like we are doomed to fail this ultimate test as a human race unless we completely change our lifestyles.
Despite his skepticism of the actions of corporations, Kirsch believes that with enough of a push, we can usher in a new era of sustainability.
“I don’t know whether ethical capitalism is an oxymoron or not,” Kirsch said. “We need continued social pressure as well as political and legal requirements that force corporations to change their practices, although I’m not opposed to providing them with incentives and scientific support to get them where they need to go.”
With courses in business sustainability and the establishment of the Erb Institute — a collaboration between SEAS and the Ross School of Business — it seems some business experts at the University are already trying to push for a sustainable future.
LSA junior Thomas Banks, president of the Environmental Consulting Club, advises businesses on what they can do to implement more ecologically sound practices. Banks believes that businesses will recognize the importance of “aligning interests” with environmental advocacy as more sustainable policy is incorporated into our economic framework in the future.
“Business needs to be leveraged in a way in which (it fits) together (with sustainability),” Banks said. “This isn’t to say the free market will somehow correct the very pollution it incentivizes. The future is a mix of government being used to internalize public costs of doing business — like carbon taxes, creating costs for nonmarket, intangible goods — and a change in the philosophy of doing business.”
While Banks recognized that businesses can react counterproductively to demands for more eco-friendly practices — such as greenwashing without actually addressing the problem — incentives will push companies to adopt more sustainable practices in order to avoid regulatory setbacks.
Currently, there are some positive developments that suggest real institutional change. At the governmental level, the city of Ann Arbor committed in May of 2021 to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 through the use of renewable energy sources. The University of Michigan’s administration also shared an environmental sustainability statement in 2020, declaring that the school will be free of fossil fuel use by 2040. Student activism was a driving force behind this shift, as organizations like the U-M Climate Action Movement pushed for more environmentally conscious practices on campus. And they are not the only ones urging powerful stakeholders to reconsider their goals for the future: there are a variety of student groups who continue to fight for a more sustainable future.
With steps like these, Princen believes that a sustainable world may actually be closer than we think. We have already seen the good that simply slowing down can do for the planet, he explained, discussing how the Earth was able to take breaks surrounding tragedies such as after 9/11 and during the earliest stages of the pandemic.
“The operator’s definition (of sustainability) is ‘using resources without using them up,’” Princen said. “It’s not a totally alien idea of what it would look like. (We just) sort of have to take off that extravagant edge. I think there is much about contemporary life that would be familiar in a sustainable world. And there’s certain aspects, actually, that would be quite a bit better.”
By eliminating some of our uncontrolled practices — such as excessive extraction, unrestricted development and pooling of resources within wealthier states — we can curb some of the major environmental issues threatening our existence. Not only will this result in positive ecological change, but it will also improve human life as cases of drought, food inequality and natural disaster caused by climate change diminish.
We can achieve true sustainability. We just need to make some sacrifices — collectively — to get there. There are promising signs of real improvements. Only time will tell whether or not these institutions keep their word and continue to fight for a healthier planet.
The Power of the Individual
Are my individual actions pointless? Do we have to completely redesign our lives to make a “sustainable” world? Is it too late to do anything?
The short answer to each of these questions is no. But this two-letter word does not encapsulate the amount of work it will take to avoid complete environmental disaster.
That work starts, yet does not end, at the individual level. Kirsch echoes this belief, stating that sustainability efforts need to be made within every institution and through various methods of execution.
“The push to decarbonize our economy has to occur at all levels of society,” Kirsch said. “From individual actions and participation in protest movements to political and legal change, such as the current administration’s efforts to incorporate climate change goals at all levels of government, and to incentivize corporations to search for new technologies and materials.”
When the scope of the issue seems too much to bear, Princen reminds us that doing anything is doing something.
“I think part of being overwhelmed is the feeling that we have to do everything, and we have to do it 100% and be sort of perfect in our environmental behavior,” Princen said. “And that’s a purist notion that, ultimately, I think is self-defeating both on the individual and collective level … One doesn’t have to change everything. But the changes will be fundamental.”
In a similar vein, Hogan’s TED Talk concludes by reminding us that the only thing we have power over is our mindset. If we are too deep into “denial” or “despair,” we will not have the emotional or mental capacity to take on the issues we are panicking about.
The current environmental crisis is terrifying. It’s heartbreaking. It’s deadly. It can make us — especially young people — feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. But in order to move forward, we have to let go of the notion that it’s all in our hands. We must utilize the strengths we do have to combat this emergency instead of panicking about situations that are out of our control — because it is possible with the tools we already possess. There are 7 billion people on this planet; if we all take on some of the weight, the load won’t be as daunting.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.