Climate change has us barreling towards humanity’s demise. But we should still recycle, right?
By Audrey Cleo Yap
Growing up in the ‘90s, I remember watching Recycle Rex, a cartoon dinosaur taking me through the steps of “recycle, reduce, reuse,” by recycling my cans and plastic water bottles instead of tossing them into the trash. Decades later, I can still hear the chorus to that corny blue dinosaur’s song in my head.
Throughout elementary school, I celebrated Earth Day, avoided using hairspray that came in aerosol cans (the hole in the ozone layer!) and learned how to budget water usage, since I grew up in Southern California where we seemed to be in perpetual drought. There was power in thinking that with every can I put into a bin and five-minute shower I took, I was helping save the planet.
But it would appear that all of my youthful efforts, many of which I have continued into adulthood, have been for naught.
In a packed theater at Santa Monica College last month, activists and community organizers discussed the urgency of climate change and its effects as part of the Youth for Climate Action Panel. The outlook, the panelists said, isn’t good — and it’s going to get worse and fast. A recent report released by the United Nations indicated that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, an unprecedented rate and number largely human-caused that could result in the planet’s sixth mass extinction event.
In 2018, the UN released a report that paints a dire picture of a world on the brink of environmental and economic collapse brought on by extreme weather systems, massive die-offs of coral reefs and food shortages as soon as 2040.
“This is not a left issue, this is not a right issue, this is a human rights issue,” said panelist D Garcia, 19, an organizer with Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization that advocates for the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal is a proposed stimulus program addressing climate change and economic inequality sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA); among its goals are meeting the U.S.’s energy demands through “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources” in 10 years.
If those at the forefront of today’s environmental movement seem especially youthful, it’s because they are. In 2018, a Swedish teenager named Greta Thunberg started protesting outside of Sweden’s parliament, distraught over the environment and what she perceived as politicians’ and adults’ apathy towards it. This past March, young people from all over the globe did the same, in a worldwide “Climate Strike.” The rallying cry is if adults aren’t going to do anything about it, well, we will.
“I believe that there’s hope, as dire as the science and timeline is,” said panelist Walker Foley, a senior organizer for Food & Water Watch. Foley, who already has a degree, has taken this a dramatic step further, enrolling at SMC with the goal of becoming a doctor so that when it all hits the fan, there will be at least one more medical professional ready to deal with it. “We have no other option but to win.”
But anyone who has played in a team sport knows, winning is a group effort and some will help more than others. And right now, the U.S. seems happy to be (global) warming the bench since we withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017. We’re also not part of a recent addendum to the Basel Convention — a treaty that regulates movement of hazardous waste across countries — in which more than 180 nations agreed to restrict the global plastic waste trade.
And it’s not enough for everyone in L.A. County to buy a hybrid and stop eating red meat.
One of the most complex and frustrating parts about climate change is that it’s an enemy that we can’t see until it’s, literally, at our doorstep, flooding it or setting our backyards on fire. And it’s one that has played a long game that we have been aware of for decades, yet have not successfully grappled with the consequences of its ultimate long con — the con being that somehow, it’ll all work out, that the scientists will figure it out and we will all be safe/saved.
And here we are, potentially less than two decades away from environmental and economic collapse. That little blue dinosaur was so so wrong, or at the very least, just way too optimistic about what recycling my Diet Coke cans could do.
During the panel, there was a lot of talk about dismantling the systems and corporations that have facilitated the situation we are in. One audience member talked about joining a revolution that topples the U.S. military. Panelists from Food & Water Watch stressed the importance of electing officials who don’t take money from big oil. An SMC student asked, pointedly, why the discussion was so centered on making personal sacrifices when, in fact, corporations have had the biggest impact.
“One hundred corporations are responsible for 71% of pollution,” he said,
citing the Carbon Majors Report from 2017. “Frankly, I think, they are the enemy.”
He isn’t wrong. Which is why making the “right,” environmentally sound choices as individuals can feel so futile, a point emphasized by panelist Alex Schwartz, Ph.D., who teaches courses on environmental psychology and chairs SMC’s psychology department.
“You can eat less red meat. You can eat less meat altogether. You can eat no meat. When you’re planning your family sizes, have fewer children. That’s the biggest one, actually. It’s surprising more environmentalists aren’t talking about smaller family sizes,” said Schwartz.
And even then, unless these small actions take place on a massive scale, they will have only negligible impact. Schwartz added that as humans, we suffer from “single action bias” — that if we do just one thing, it will somehow be enough to impact an entire system, and we don’t have to care about it anymore. “Even though eating less meat is necessary,” he said, “it’s not sufficient. It’s not enough.”
On my walk home from the event, I stopped at my favorite tacqueria and debated the merits of ordering a carne asada burrito. I thought about whether
my husband and I would want to bring children into a world destined for a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style hellscape by the time they would be in college. I thought about embracing nihilism, accepting my inevitable pummel into existential nothingness in two decades because in the end, aren’t we all — as the wise Keanu Reeves once said — stardust, baby.
I ordered the burrito; it didn’t taste that good, and the guilt of picking carne asada over a veggie one gnawed at my conscience, albeit temporarily.
“Who cares if I ordered the veggie one?” I asked myself. My one single order wasn’t the root cause of impending environmental collapse, in the same way my choice to take a five-minute shower won’t save the planet from it.
But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, right?