By Carly Schwartz, GOOD.is
Earlier this year, I headed to the Panamanian jungle for six months, certain I was going to save the world. I ate meals prepared with produce from a tropical permaculture farm. I went “number two” in a hole in the ground and covered my remains with sawdust. I observed the earth’s natural systems and envisioned how to mimic them on grand and tiny scales. I was also a total hypocrite.
En route to my eco-paradise, I boarded a carbon-spewing plane and rode in a hulking all-terrain vehicle. Once there, I got my water from the nearest bodega, bottled in plastic—the jungle isn’t exactly known for its vast amounts of recycling bins. I purchased camping supplies at major global retailers. I often transported groceries from Panama City to my tent in single-use plastic bags.
Was I actually doing something useful for the planet while living in jungle isolation? Or was I just a privileged neohippie on an extended intellectual vacation, hanging out in a mostly-but-not-quite sustainable bubble?
I now live in San Francisco, one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the country, and the majority of people around me have good intentions when it comes to addressing climate change. But my friends and I are a mere specks on a giant rock teeming with 7 billion more of us, and our new President-elect has threatened to withdraw the from the Paris Climate Agreement, tapping a climate change denier to lead the White House’s environmental transition. How can our idealistic energy make any sort of actual, tangible difference? And who am I to dare call myself an environmentalist when my lifestyle is laden with contradictions—washing my reusable water bottle with mass-produced detergent, Instagramming photos of my CSA’s urban farm with a smartphone made out of rare-earth metals?
“To be an environmentalist at all, you have to accept the fact that you’re going to be a hypocrite,” my friend Cory Shaw, who has worked in the clean energy space for nearly a decade, tells me. “Let’s say I have a bottle and I want to recycle it. But wait—if recycling uses a ton of energy to turn my bottle into something else and then transport it to 12 different locations, is it actually more sustainable to just throw it away and create the next one from scratch?”
In order to come to terms with our collective hypocrisy without being paralyzed by guilt, I’ve begun to accept a sobering truth: It’s impossible to promote sustainable behaviors without acknowledging, and ultimately embracing, our profoundly unsustainable world. I call it the sustainability paradox.
Those who like to point fingers at sustainability hypocrites may not be able to deal with the reality that it would be impossible to flip a switch and become fully fossil-fuel-free beings overnight. Margaret Atwood imagines that reality in her groundbreaking essay “A Future Without Oil”:
“Everything would immediately come to a halt. No cars. No planes … Food would cease to flow into the cities, water would cease to flow out of the taps. Panic would set in. We’re hooked on oil, and without it, we can’t do much of anything.”
We’ll need to build up our biofuels step-by-step, establish proper infrastructure, and train our workers to adapt to new industries. It’s only natural for humans to require some time to mentally ease into an future without oil, as well.
That attitude might seem dangerous, given our propensity to discuss our climate future in doomsday terms. A recent Google News search for climate change brings up headlines like “Dead Coral Reefs Mark The Beginning of Dangerous Climate Change,” “We’re Speeding Toward a Climate Catastrophe,” and “Climate Change Is a Danger to Our Health." But this kind of thinking puts undue pressure on environmentally conscious individuals with good intentions—warriors in a battle we’ll need to wage for decades. Amanda Ravenhill, a longtime environmental activist and the executive director of the Brooklyn- and San Francisco-based Buckminster Fuller Institute, argues that in order to fully understand our potential for addressing climate change, we should flip this attitude on its head.
“The whole angsty, ‘You should feel guilty about things,’ narrative about environmentalism is off,” she tells me. “There’s a lot that we need to fight against, but there’s so much good news out there. There’s an opportunity for climate change not to be the demise of civilization, but the spark for innovation,” Ravenhill says. “We get to redesign all these industries. How exciting is that?”
Ravenhill mentions a number of exciting recent developments: batteries made from material the thickness an atom; tools that sequester carbon from the atmosphere and then repurpose it; products designed to mimic leaves that capture rainwater; and light reflective paints
Her mindset certainly appears to be seeping into the larger consciousness. Earlier this year, Al Gore released a TED talk in which he touted the explosion of recent investments in the clean energy sector and proclaimed that “we are solving this crisis.” Bill Gates followed suit, predicting in his annual letter that “an energy miracle” will occur within the next 15 years. In April, 175 world leaders signed the Paris Agreement, the largest collective commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in history. Last month, that same group continued climate talks at the 22nd annual Conference of the Parties in Morocco.
Meanwhile, the private sector is already stepping up in areas where governments are falling short, says Paul Bledsoe, a former energy advisor in the Clinton administration. “We will need additional governmental support to meet the Paris targets … but climate action has become a key measure of international moral and diplomatic standing.”
“These new markets will continue to expand regardless of politics,” adds Danny Kennedy, the co-founder of the solar firm Sungevity and managing director of the California Clean Energy Fund. “The solar industry added 30,000 jobs in the last year alone. We can’t be stopped. These businesses are going to succeed.”
Kennedy, who attended the Marrakech climate talks, has invested in a number of promising startups, including Advanced Microgrid Solutions, which is developing energy storage technology that can operate on an industrial scale, and Power Hive, which builds solar-powered microgrids in rural areas of Kenya that have never had access to electricity. And those are just two of the tens of thousands of organizations dedicated to climate solutions that have cropped up in recent years.
Which leads to another paradox. Is it possible that climate change itself can actually be viewed as a positive thing? One that forces us to come together over a shared cause—our own survival—and create sustainable systems that actually work? One that allows us to focus on our greatest resource of all: human capital?
Michelle Thaller, a NASA scientist, takes a more pragmatic stance. “In the next hundred years—in our children’s lifetimes—we may have to deal with something one hundred times the scale of the refugee crisis in Europe.” She added that if the most alarming current predictions come to fruition, places like Florida will experience continued flooding in the near future, and entire low-lying nations like Bangladesh will be at risk over the coming centuries.
“This sort of mass migration has never happened in human history,” she says. “Borders may need to be rewritten. This is as big a deal as the fall of Rome.” Meanwhile, life on earth will continue to regenerate for millennia with or without the human race. When we say we want to save the planet, what we really mean is that we want to save ourselves.
But Thaller also shared evidence as to why we might, indeed, have the capacity to save ourselves. In the 1980s, humans discovered that the hole in the ozone layer, the layer of atmosphere that protects the earth’s surface from the majority of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, was being largely caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The scientific community rallied for a solution, and enough research, lobbying, and awareness campaigns led to the 1989 Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of CFCs in appliances worldwide.
By 2003, ozone depletion had begun to slow down. According to Thaller, NASA recently produced computer simulations to show what would have happened if we hadn’t banned CFCs. “The ozone would have completely diminished,” she says. “Humans wouldn’t have been able to be outside for long periods of time, and we wouldn’t be able to grow crops. It would have decimated the human population.”
“We’re in awkward times,” Ravenhill adds. “We don’t have access to products and services designed to produce zero waste. It’s inherently hypocritical. But that’s not a reason to give up. That would be such a waste of our human potential.”
Conversations, knowledge exchange, and a willingness to ask questions are the seeds that will eventually lead to policy changes and industry shifts. Our species’ survival on this planet depends on us embracing the sustainability paradox, shedding our guilt, coming together, sharing information, and moving forward.