by Sabine Rogers
Although the 24-hour news cycle may promote a very different perspective, I believe the international crisis most in need of our attention, which we are most capable of changing, exists here - in our homes and communities - in the United States. This is a crisis of consumption, pollution, waste, and a lifestyle that rests firmly upon those pillars. It is about a simultaneous dependence on and disregard for our surroundings, and the profound impact this has on ecological systems from local to global scales.
Humans have an extraordinary capacity to shape the world. In the 200,000 some odd years that we’ve been around, people have manipulated and changed the environments around them. But today, there are more of us and we are taking more from the planet, faster than it can be replenished, with fatal consequences. Environmental devastation -- large and small, reported and disregarded -- seems as inescapable, today, as the globalized golden arches of McDonald’s. But if we can begin to seriously consider how we are implicated in these problems, we might find that we are also capable of creating paths out of them.
According to studies by the Global Footprint Network, if the total of the Earth’s productive land and water was divided equally among all 7.3 billion of us, each person would get 1.7 hectares (about four acres) to sustain themselves. Today, the average amount of global space used to support a single American -- to obtain resources and dispose of waste -- is more than 9 hectares. What’s more, with just 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. is responsible for 20% of global energy consumption. Our country consumes resources and energy voraciously, almost unconsciously, and each one of us pitches a share of waste into the ever-growing heap. So, where are these resources coming from? And where does all of our trash end up?
What are the costs of our lifestyle?
The United States is far from homogenous. Our communities are composed of diverse cultures and backgrounds, of individuals with unique values and traditions. Our country is plagued by severe inequality of wealth and opportunity; not everyone in the U.S. enjoys a high standard of living or shares in the abundance of our consumer culture. And yet, we all inevitably participate in the system around us -- a system constructed by our shared infrastructure, mass media, economic framework, and global political power. American mainstream culture expects, produces, and celebrates a lifestyle that is wasteful, unsustainable and, ultimately, disengaged from the natural world we are an inextricable part of.
We all leave different-sized footprints on our planet but, collectively, are stepping on a lot. We live in a world with toxic water and air clogged by pollution; a world where mountains and entire landscapes are reduced to heaps of gray and brown rubble to access the lucrative resources they sit on top of; a world with an increasingly limited supply of arable land, potable water and available energy resources. The overexploitation that supports an American lifestyle comes at the expense of the planet and the many populations that are left with less. The unrestrained polluting, demolition and waste production intrinsic to our current system is harmful to all forms of life - including us.
In Blanchard, it’s easy to buy a lunch to go, grab a plastic fork and a couple napkins, and head off to wherever you need to be. It’s just as easy to throw it all away when you’re done -- the disposable container with remnants of a salad and the used fork, the empty bottle and the napkins -- letting everything fall into the opaque world of the trash bin. But what if we stopped, first, to consider the tar sands of Athabasca, Canada where the land is strip-mined to extract a thicker-than-molasses form of petroleum, called bitumen. The thick oil substance is separated out from sediments and water, processed into a synthetic crude oil, and then hauled off to refineries to make gasoline, asphalt, plastics, and other consumer products. Canada is currently the largest supplier of petroleum imports to the U.S., providing almost three times more than Saudi Arabia, so perhaps this land was the source of the oil used in a plastics production plant, mixed with dyes and chemical additives for increased flexibility, and made into small resin pellets. The pellets were probably shipped to another factory and fed through a system of complex machinery, heating, compressing and molding the plastic into a salad bowl or fork. These disposable products were sent to a food packaging distributor, loaded into a tractor-trailer, and driven to a cafeteria near you. Finally, after a 15 minute lunch break, it’s all headed for the trash (and on to a landfill, incinerator, or the ocean, from there).
Maybe Canadian bitumen was processed into the fuel that burned to run the factory machines, that filled the tank of the truck driving these plastics from a warehouse to Mount Holyoke College, or generated the electricity to power the cooler where your pre-packaged food chilled. The web of possible scenarios is labyrinthine. Just by trying to trace the things we consume back to their origins we learn something about our system and can begin to imagine the impacts of our individual choices as they exist in a broader, global context.
As I type this now, my laptop is sucking electricity from a three-pronged outlet in the wall. South Hadley Electric Light Department is supplying power -- sourced primarily from natural gas, coal, oil and nuclear power -- to turn the lights on, keep our mini-fridge running and charge my laptop. A trash can sitting beside me is slowing filling up with plastic wrappers, tissues, a banana peel, and every other odd and end I have condemned to the landfill, where they will emit methane and leach toxins into the ground and water. I am very much a participant in this lifestyle I am so critical of. The more I learn about how these systems and institutions work, the more I want to improve them and change how our society interacts with the world. I haven’t found an easy solution; I don’t think there will ever be one. In the absence of real, wholesale change, reducing my individual footprint often seems futile, the results negligible or abstract, at best.
When I engage with ecological issues, environmental degradation, and the challenges of poverty, public health, and access to essential resources, I feel angry and guilty, but also profoundly insignificant and helpless. Is there anything I can do to solve such huge and entangled global crises? It’s easy to become cynical and apathetic in the face of these problems. After all, when a corrupt system is working for you, a relatively painless response is to concede defeat and accept the way things are.
I cannot stop the U.S. from being the world’s top consumer or one of its biggest polluters. None of us can change the system in isolation. But that does not mean our individual choices do not have real implications. By making decisions, each day, to consume frugally, to use less gas and electricity, and to find ways to avoid the trash can, we can take less from the world and leave more for others. Through these small decisions, you are choosing not to add your waste to the global heap, preserving some amount of clean air, protecting some portion of clean water, delaying the extraction of resources by some amount of time, and giving a little bit of the Earth an opportunity to reproduce, regrow, and restore.
I recently found myself in the waiting room of a doctor’s office looking up at a painted poster that perfectly described what I have been trying to say.
“Always hold firmly to the thought that each one of us can do something to bring some portion of misery to an end.”
Let’s focus our energy toward all the little things we can do to decrease our environmental impact and assuage global harm. We should acknowledge our frustrations, our guilt and anger, our passion and our self-doubts with the way things are, instead of strangling it all in shrink wrap and allowing ourselves to forget that there is a problem. There is a problem and there is hope. We just have to realize that it’s not only in one place; we won’t ever arrive at an answer that can solve everything. But there is hope in all of the small possibilities and opportunities we have, all of the day-to-day decisions we can make, to do something differently, to improve some part of the system, and to eradicate “some portion of misery.”