The Blurred Lines of Personal Environmental Responsibility and Convenience

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Generation Z, with advances in technology and production methods, face complications over the environmental awareness also growing. With both consumerist and environmentalist actions at odds, the question arises about effects of either type of actions.

There is a strange dichotomy between how many individuals, such as Gen Z, care for the environment and how enamored society is with convenience today. 

People can reuse every glass jar in sight and religiously use a metal straw and still Doordash orders that will never see the light of day once the disposable containers are consumed from. 

At worst, one might be called a hypocrite, but these actions aren’t so far from potentially being one’s best efforts.

Regardless of each attempt to do well for the environment, the maintenance of a sustainable lifestyle undoubtedly collides with the tempting nature of today’s consumerist society. 

This is tricky territory because this latter route is oftentimes out of how entrenched society is in convenience which, in turn, is exacerbated by the allure of everything being available and pretty on our doorsteps within days or minutes.

This is not to say that sustainability can’t be quite attractive on the exterior. Stringing along little tote bags to Trader Joe’s or thrift stores is as trendy and decorated as it is reusable. 

They no longer stem just out of necessity, either; it’s preferable to many.

UC San Diego offers green plastic tupperware containers in dining halls and sustainable alternatives like the student compost garden along with as many recyclable containers as trash containers. 

Many ask if these green acts along with other individual moves are enough to come close to collectively offsetting or affecting the big, carbon-emitting companies and corporations. And if they aren’t, the question arises of whether people should feel the need to engage in productive, environmentally-inclined ways.

It is not surprising that the jadedness individuals feel about their personal contributions for the environment isn’t exactly decreasing. 

Though the COVID-19 pandemic went on to halt activity for factories and flights for more than a year, this, apparently, still has done little to lower global temperatures.

Either way, any “fix” wouldn’t have been sustainable in the long run when the goal was to tackle the pandemic, not to use the pandemic and the harm it wreaked against people to lower the insidious environmental emissions. 

According to a Pew Research Center report back in May, Generation Z and — a bit less so — Millennials see the climate as the top priority for future generations. They have engaged with discussions and social media posts on climate change, support phasing out the use of oil, gas, and coal more than previous generations, and have felt more anxiety in regards to climate concerns. 

There are also partisan divides: younger Democratic-leaning individuals ended up more likely than Republicans to support climate change action, although younger Republican-leaning individuals were found less likely than their older counterparts to support expanding fossil fuel sources. 

The report also states that those very strongly concerned about the climate believe that human activity contributes a lot to climate change than other less concerned groups, which might explain their more hands-on, invested approach to climate change.

In a Vox interview back in 2018 held by reporter Gaby del Valle with Richard Heede, the co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute, which is behind the Carbon Majors report. Heede acknowledges that 100 companies are behind almost all greenhouse gas emissions. He established this report back in 2013 to showcase how fossil fuels have increased since 1988.

“This report looks at industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions deriving from fossil fuel producers in the past, present, and future,” Heede wrote in the report. “In 1988, human-induced climate change was officially recognized through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since this time, the fossil fuel industry has doubled its contribution to global warming by emitting as much greenhouse gas in 28 years as in the 237 years between 1988 and the birth of the industrial revolution.”

It seems that while personal action for the environment stirs polarizing conversation about whether it is beneficial or not, those that feel more environmentally conscious are more inclined to do more. 

In other words, though corporations engage in most of the dirty work when it comes to fossil fuel emissions, our choices in regards to sustainability still reflect what we can’t help but see —or also desire to see in our environment. 

Comedian and commentator Bill Maher acknowledges the environmental inclination of Gen Z, but he might describe one engaging in consumerism and convenient purchases on top of this environmental consciousness as hypocritical.

After all, a couple of weeks ago, as part of his “Real Time with Bill Maher” show that focuses on mostly political conversation with guests, he asserted in a video, “New Rule: OK, 

Zoomer,” that today’s lavish lifestyle versus the environmentally attuned are two starkly different lifestyles that cannot coincide; it’s one or the other. 

He references young billionaire Kylie Jenner as the opposite of carbon neutral, but also how she has many, many more followers on Instagram than the alsoyoung environmentalist, Greta Thunberg. 

“We get it. Boomers dropped the ball on the environment …We dropped it like it was hot … But have you picked it up?” Maher said. 

To him, there is an overlap of Gen Z and the Baby Boomer generation — an overlap that insists on reaping the benefits one can now. But this argument is also tricky, not just because it’s displeasing for Gen Z or Baby Boomers to perhaps want to hear.

For instance, Lauren Singer, a New York University alumna, is well-known for her efforts in keeping all of her trash for the year in a small mason jar among other things in the zero-waste movement, a lifestyle to conserve waste. 

And though she never dictates this is the way sustainability must be as much as it is one’s best efforts, the lines may get blurry as to what’s convenient and possible versus what’s unsustainable and problematic. 

“I would never impose my lifestyle on anyone else, whether it be coworkers, friends or family,” Singer told the Huffington Post. “I respect everyone’s personal decisions and don’t go off telling people about how I live unless they ask and are interested. However, if we ever were to have a physical office, I would make it zero-waste.”

This idea is especially true when both arenas — the wasteful and the more environmentally conscious — coexist. 

Can one be a proponent for recycling and campus organizations like CALPIRG and still passively enjoy Jenner’s Instagram story on her mink fur slides amongst other luxury pairs in her opulent abode? Where can the line between choosing the route of sustainability and warding off many consumerist pursuits even if they are convenient be drawn?

Sustainability requires deliberation even if it’s not necessarily more expensive: the kind of packaging to choose, method of transportation, voting choices, etc. 

As an example of how this issue isn’t so black and white, some say that the conversation against single-plastic items like straws is a trivial distraction for companies to feel good while others say it at least triggers the conversation of biodegradable versus non-biodegradable products.

Like Singer implies, such may not matter as long as people put their best foot forward for the environment, but this also means awareness. 

The COP26 climate change summit took place in Glasgow, Scotland from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, in which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry dubbed the 26th conference as the “last best hope for the world.”

The goal of the summit is to cut carbon and aid less-developed countries in reaching their goals without economic hardship — part of getting the Paris Climate Accord up and going more efficiently.

In the Atlantic article, the author predicts that Democrats in Congress will make an even bigger decision, which is the decision to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. Robinson Meyer, the staff writer for The Atlantic and author of The Weekly Planet, criticizes the UN’s lack of changes to domestic policy to combat climate change. 

But Meyer ominously says that the failure of Biden’s act would be problematic as people will become jaded with the U.S.’ incompetence in addressing climate change properly.

Heede’s focus on how action can still be in the homefront echoes more of what Meyer said about the realm of domestic policy. Heede also states that neither of two areas —one that says making individual choices is futile and the other that says one should do everything they can —is enough. 

There is more to do such as voting for more renewable energy and even making individual, symbolic moves for the environment that are simply right by ourselves and grandkids.

“There needs to be structural change on a government level that is then implemented systematically. I don’t think the onus is all on the individual, but I also think it’s a bit hypocritical to entirely blame corporations when these corporations exist mostly because of the consumer want for their product. We’re all tied together, so that’s why the changes need to be on a broader, more systemic level,” Nicole Manley, a junior at John Muir College, said. 

Sending and keeping emails requires fossil fuels. Engaging in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency requires fossil fuels — a lot of them. 

In fact, the footprint of this mining for cryptocurrency is more than the carbon footprint of the United Arab Emirates with the power required for it being the reason why it’s connected to the least expensive and least-regulated sources of energy. Younger folks are engaging in this virtual arena more than ever. 

Beloved celebrities, like Rihanna, and their promotion of their lines and products caters to Generation Z, but oftentimes it’s also neatly wrapped by the bow of fast fashion and dialogue of profit over adequate pay to those bearing the burden of production. 

In the same vein, online sites like Shein are so ubiquitous and cheap with prices that the same top selling on the site can end up at a thrift store with no certainty that it will actually be sold — even if these secondhand shops are widely popular.

Standing by celebrities or products behind major, carbon-emitting items can be both seen as a way to obtain affordable products or a way for today’s generation to be another cog in consumerism’s wheels.

Gen Z  is undoubtedly more environmentally conscious than the generations that came before. It is undeniable that the generation is more likely to see and reap the fruits,or lack thereof,of what they take. But this is also a time where the intoxicating allure of convenience — from clothing to cryptocurrency — reels us in.

So while many wish to discern whose problem it is to bear and where to go from there, there is another difficulty: how excessive production can meet overconsumption, certainly, but more generally, how the lines blur between people’s best efforts and what’s most convenient. 

Art by Angela Liang for The UCSD Guardian.

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