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Before It’s Too Late

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It’s time sustainability stopped being “just green,” because it’s not going to be enough.

The idea of this column, “Let’s Give a Damn,” actually came from one of the Environmental Services tech whom my partner — Adina Spertus-Melhus ’17 — and I talked to last semester for our Presidential Sustainability Research Fellowship (PSRF — pronounced pee-surf) project. Rebecca from the night-shift in the Chemistry wing – hey Rebecca! — said: “I love reading The Phoenix,” and, “I know how to recycle better than most Swatties,” and, “I’d love to see a column on sustainability.”

So here we are.

This column is not going to be a place where I spew out tips (or commands) like “Top Ten Things to Make Your Experience in Sharples Sustainable” because I realize I have no place to do that. Nor am I the most exemplary person when it comes down to doing all that I can. Rather, the aim of this column is to try and push forward the conversations on topics of sustainability, which I’m sure are happening all around, and into the public domain here at Swarthmore. My goal is to encourage conversations that are accessible to everyone, and to be opinionated in the hopes that my thoughts make sustainable living more interesting. I will also be writing in conjunction with Ecosphere, Swarthmore’s first and only zine that will highlight all the great projects and environmental groups on campus now. I hope to also get feedback and suggestions on what I should talk about, and thus create an interactive community. Please feel free to comment and or shoot me a personal email.

Sustainability has become one of those topics that has become a “thing” on the individual level. Almost as if it’s either your ‘thing’ or it’s not. I know this because, as I was going through my awkward tween years, some people would say, “Oh she, like, uh, cares about the environment,” and meant it as a comment rather than a statement. Sometimes that comment was made as a joke, and people would giggle. To many, if sustainability is your “thing,” you’re either a new-age-bare-foot-tree-hugging-spiritual-voice-of-the-trees-paganist-wanna-be-vegan with a billion impossible habits that involve something like saving your toenail clippings for later, or you’re a techno-centric-fact-spewing-apocalyptic-prophet-environmental-engineer who lives in a completely self-powered room with a bunch of extremely particular stuff that no one else around you understands. In other words: self-righteous, preachy, and annoying. If you’re not one of these two, then you’re just an annoying, fake environmentalist.

In all cases, you’re varying degrees of annoying. You care about something that is not as important as every other social justice issue.

Great.

It isn’t a surprise to me that many people are hesitant when they see large Greenpeace and PETA signs, or when they’re tentative to start doing research and to ask questions on becoming more environmentally conscious. It is a greatly considered topic for a niche group of slightly rebellious people that I often get asked why I not an environmental studies major. “If you care about this, then you should just join the tribe, and shut up about it.” Put it this way: imagine if someone came up to me and asked “If you cared so much about being Asian and your Asian identity, why don’t you major in Asian Studies?” Well, I would look at the person in astonishment and probably wonder how sad it is that caring about something, is just not valued or normal in our current society. As if nowadays if you cared about something it has to be because you were also doing “real work” for it.

Isn’t it sad that I can feel eye-rolls as I say the word “care?”

I understand that it is difficult to empathize with environmental issues because they are so embedded within every aspect of our lives — from everything we use, to what we eat, to where we go to the toilet. Every system has the question of the environment in it. It’s so vast and confusing people are unsure who the environmentalists are even representing and caring about. It sounds pompous to say “the entire planet” and it sounds strange — and is untrue — to say “the trees.” People stay away from it entirely, or they joke about it because it’s easy to joke around with environmental issues — haha, recycling, psh — because, well, no one seems to be getting hurt.

Well, now people clearly and incontrovertibly are getting hurt.

The Syrian Civil War is considered one of the largest wars sparked by a climate change-induced drought. The poor and disenfranchised suffer the most as a result extreme weather disasters. I want to step away from facts and statistics for a moment. My home, Beijing, is infamous for its pollution. That means a lot of different things, but one thing that will never fail to sadden me is that now it is harder to laugh because it takes deep breaths to laugh.

It is time to restructure the norm of being a “sustainability person.” This is an issue that cannot just be “green,” about the “environment,” or for the “green people.” It is a nuanced issue that no one has the right answer to. No one knows the answer, or what is exactly correct. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything — in fact, it should mean there’s greater opportunity for everyone to be thinking and acting. It is difficult for a lot of people to grapple with, including myself, is the degree of failure that is unavoidable as we live in our current economic system. The existence of this economic system sets “being sustainable” on an asymptotic scale rather than one of yes or no.

Here is a picture of a horizontal asymptote.Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 1.10.10 AM

I know very little about horizontal asymptotes other than that the line will never reach a limit, in this case, zero, but will only continuously reach for zero.

Let’s take a moment and pretend that the gap between the line and zero represents the negative environmental impact you have. Let’s acknowledge the gap, and feel a twinge of sadness that we seem to always hurt our Mother Earth. It should not mean we should sit and just sigh and await some, we don’t even know what kind of, disaster. Because now, more than ever, every step in the right direction is necessary and real, even if it’s not perfect. It starts with caring, and does not mean we can’t do anything. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. And caring about the environment, believing that climate change is very much real and that the environment needs to be taken care of starts with just that, giving a damn. Anywhere from “I live an entirely zero-waste existence” to “I watch Planet Earth to appreciate nature” is a question of degree, not validity.

If you think the environment needs protecting, if you think that it is wrong that we profit off the exploitation of the environment especially in third-world countries, and if you think that something needs to be done, then you care. That cure can take any shape and form you want to start with.

As we twiddle our thumbs and watch the new climate-change-denying cabinet take power, let’s all just start with the baby step of saying loudly and fearlessly to a friend, to all your friends on Facebook, to yourself at night, and anyone:

“I care about the environment.”

Because, honestly, it is already a little late.  

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