My name is Kiki Serantes and I’m an environmental hypocrite.
From the comfort of my Seattle office, I drink coffee that has been through more countries than I have. When I can’t find what I’m looking for on the gaudy shelves of my favorite thrift stores, I’m not immune from that thrill of finding exactly what I crave online. I buy organic and local food when I can — but “when I can” has loose meaning when living on a below-minimum-wage stipend.
It would take just over 5 planets to sustain life for all 7+ billion of us on this blue-green Earth if everyone lived like I do, according to an Earthday.org simulation. At 22, I feel the weight of my massive carbon footprint crushing down on and surrounding me as if I’m an ant underneath an expanding concrete city. I can taste the miasma of my own actions, compounded by the complacency staining the community in which I, however unwillingly, participate.
No doubt that “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” however cliché it sounds, is a crucial mantra in pursuing a better tomorrow. But just as crucial is the deconstruction of the systems that imprison underprivileged and privileged folks alike on the speeding train toward climate catastrophe.
When President Trump — or as many of us in the resistance prefer to call him, “45”— declared U.S. withdrawal from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, he made it all the more important for us to consider our own actions. But what’s more is how 45’s decision has cost us so much of the sparse time we have left to transform, overhaul and, in some cases, eliminate the systems and institutions (aka the “dinosaur economy“) that exacerbate American carbon emissions — norms and practices we contribute to often without realization.
It’s not that I don’t take steps to lesson my footprint: I commute on the bus to work every day. I take short showers. I limit my meat consumption (though, admittedly, I could do this more). But attempts to align actions with, what I feel is, a moral obligation to undo and address the detriment we humans have bestowed on Earth are incomplete when each of us unintentionally contributes to man-made climate change every day simply by living in the nation we live.
The United States produces the second most CO2 globally, with the EPA estimating around 6,870 million metric tons or 15.1 trillion pounds released in 2014 (come to think of it, with 45’s “deconstruction” efforts, this stat could be of the last the EPA provides). According to the World Bank, the U.S. averaged 16.4 metric tons per capita in 2013 — the weight of 30 polar bears, one of the major species impacted by climate change, emitted per American.
Living my same lifestyle — but with S. Africa as my home — that same Earthday.org Ecological Footprint quiz suggested it would only take about 1 planet if everyone were to live a lifestyle similar to my own. The U.S.’s agricultural (with meat production contributing to around one-fifth of carbon output alone), utility and transportation industry norms and practices are all leading causes for such locational disparity in carbon emissions. Not to mention nondomestic carbon emissions, including military expenditures and out-of-country production.
What’s astounding is that even if I pledge to take instrumental steps to change my own behavior, such as pledging to cut my meat consumption in half and purchase products sans packaging, it only changes my footprint from just around 5 planets to just around 4.
Considering my Ecological Footprint opened my eyes to my own hypocrisy. But it also motivates me to think bigger, to act beyond that which is considered “realistic” within confines of the norms we’re all comfortable and accustomed to.
Uprooting our addiction to convenience and profit, our addiction to the norms and to the systems that forge a false sense of security, are necessary to change the technocentric course that humanity is moving toward — a future devoid of the unabridged wilderness from which all life we know came, a future controlled like an incubator of disillusioned survival.
How can we reach our human potential if we fail to address the institutions and norms that have inherently gifted us with a status quo, spoon-fed version of what’s good in life — of what we all should be striving for and of what happiness itself means?
In terms of addressing anthropogenic climate change, individual action is only as much of a change agent as a drop of water moving against the currents consuming it. No matter how much we change our own lives, citizens of the United States of America will always be environmental hypocrites so long as the dinosaur institutions we’re addicted to continue to thrive.
Our collective habits and the norms that we perform and participate in serve to reinforce the systems that make mass carbon emission the norm. Taking responsibility is an essential first step, but sitting around feeling bad and blaming ourselves will never provide the solutions so necessary at this crucial time. This is not to justify my hypocrisy; rather, it is to rightly place the role of advocacy, activism and education of and for climate justice in cultivating a new American (and, indeed, global) culture and system.
Too much of the carbon reduction debate emphasizes discrete, individual actions when global problems require global analysis and action. And though questioning the systems and institutions that breed human habit is indeed a gargantuan challenge that — to 45’s distaste — requires creative use of human mental faculty, continuing to see solutions to the carbon problem from an individual lens alone will never be enough.
Ultimately, our goal must not be so small-scale to eat less meat or drive less — though these are truly important steps in aligning habits with your environmental ethic. Our goal must be to ask why we are encouraged and at times forced to participate in mass carbon emission to simply survive in urban society. We must ask why our current system is so out of sync with that which is natural and harmonious in the first place, and we must ask what we can do to dismantle that system. We must go beyond reforming the systems we born into — we must transform them into something else entirely.
We must not let 45’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement thwart our grassroots efforts to dismantle the systems that are literally paving the way toward climate catastrophe. The resistance requires us to show up — with our creativity, with our donations, with our hearts.
Individual actions are strong when it comes to walking the walk: Collective actions are strong when it comes to changing the path you walk on.