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Read an Excerpt of INCONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION

Introduction

 

When we think about climate change, melting polar ice caps, hurricanes, or forest fires might be the first things that come to mind. If we think a little longer, we might get all the way to renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions, or coal. Much lower down on the list, if it comes up at all, is average, everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff, including literal stuff: a pair of jeans, a hamburger, Netflix, an air-conditioner.

 

But those four things, and many others, should be much higher on the list. In fact, almost everything we do, use, and eat in the United States (and much of the rest of the world) has a lot to do with climate change and the environment, because of the way we use resources, create waste, and emit greenhouse gases without even thinking about it.

 

That’s why I wanted to write this book: the physical things we interact with every day and lots of our daily activities don’t exist in a  vacuum—they’re much more connected to each other, to global climate change, and to each one of us than we think.

 

The story of climate  change—and all of our stuff—is actually a story about everything: science, health, injustice, inequality, national and international politics, the natural world, business, normal life. Climate change affects everyone constantly, but, until very recently, we usually only talked about it for a few days when some natural disaster happened or a particularly scary report by government scientists came  out—if  then—before we moved on to something else. Really, we should be talking about it all the time. But it’s scary, and even though it’s “an existential crisis facing humanity,” it doesn’t always seem to connect to our lives, so we haven’t talked about it nearly enough.

 

Let me back up for a second: before I became a climate change and environmental journalist, I understood in broad strokes what climate change was and why it was  happening—that transportation, industry, agriculture, and electricity generation all involve processes that result in the emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the overall surface temperature of the planet to increase. This leads to the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise in sea level, stronger storms, drought, forest fires, flooding, etc. I knew that there were other kinds of pollution that created environmental problems, like ocean plastic and acid rain. But I didn’t seek out too much more information. I didn’t like reading about climate change and its  effects—it filled me with dread and made me feel powerless. The problems seemed too big and too inevitable for me to do anything about, so it felt like it was probably best to look away. Intellectually, I recognized that climate change is the most important issue in the world. Pretending it wasn’t happening wouldn’t make it go away, so eventually I thought I should probably learn more about it, and I was lucky that the editors at the New York Times thought I was up to the challenge.

 

But it also became pretty clear to me as I started reporting and writing about climate change and the environment that there was so much left out of the conversation, including what might make the issues relatable. Plus, articles about climate change can be really boring. Even I think they’re boring! They tend to be incredibly technical or presume that we all have a lot of back-ground knowledge and context, which we don’t necessarily. And that’s too bad, because these issues are actually really interesting. Sure, they’re complicated, but they connect to each other and to us in lots of surprising and fascinating ways.

 

I also noticed that it was really hard to bring climate change down to scale, to make sense of it within the context of our own lives, and to get a sense of how our habits and the products we use affect the environment. I started thinking: What kinds of things am I doing or buying without thinking about where they come from or what kind of impact they have? How have our habits and our expectations changed over time, maybe generating more waste or encouraging more consumption? What do I notice myself and other people doing that seems wasteful but appears to happen without a second thought?

 

I thought about how watching TV and movies is so different now from when I was little, when a show was on once a week, and if you missed it, the best you could hope for was a rerun someday. Now, I can watch a whole series in one sitting on my laptop, and streaming online videos is something that many of us probably take for granted. Maybe we think about the electricity needed to power our laptop, but we probably don’t consider that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels. In the US, we still get about  one-third of our electricity from coal, so streaming your online video may be  coal-powered; the by-product of burning that coal is coal ash, one of the largest industrial  solid-waste streams in the country, which is largely  under-  regulated and can end up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country. As crazy as this might sound, it means that watching your favorite episode of The Office might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.

 

I thought about cotton. Sometimes, we hear about how drought and irrigation for agriculture create environmental problems or freshwater shortages, but we don’t always hear those same things about cotton, even though it’s also a plant. Cotton has to be grown somewhere, and depending on where it comes from, as many as 2,000 gallons of water could have been used to grow one kilogram of it, and up to 2,900 gallons could have been used to make it into a pair of blue jeans, possibly affecting someone’s water supply some-where, maybe that of a villager in Uzbekistan.

 

If you’ve ever looked at a guide about how to reduce your car-bon footprint, you’ve probably read that cutting red meat out of your diet is a pretty effective way to do so.  But maybe there are problems that agriculture poses beyond just greenhouse gas emissions, I thought. Turns out, there are: in the US, the majority of cows mostly eat feed derived from corn and soybeans, and the way we grow those crops also causes massive amounts of water  pollution— in rivers, lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and rural drinking supplies.

 

For the most part, these aren’t the kinds of environmental problems we hear about, but they help us understand the broader scope of the issue once we learn about them. As I began to learn more about the many aspects of climate change, I saw that these discrete threads are all actually part of a giant tapestry telling a story about pollution and waste and also about people and culture and history. It didn’t make me feel less alarmed, but I did start to feel less anxious and scared. I started to feel that I understood what was happening in the world, that I could evaluate what politicians and scientists and business leaders were saying, and I found that I felt like a more informed and more responsible citizen.

 

Unfortunately, knowledge doesn’t necessarily change our very real feelings of powerlessness. While we know what needs to hap-pen to mitigate the effects of climate change (halting greenhouse gas emissions now and hopefully sucking some more out from the atmosphere), actually getting there is really hard, because greenhouse gas emissions are involved in almost everything we do and a certain amount of warming and change is unavoidable at this point. Few people have offered understandable solutions. We aren’t told very much about either these solutions’ effectiveness or the actual effort or expense involved in making them happen. Instead, we hear a lot about  smaller-  scale fixes that play to our individual desire to have an impact while the larger systemic problems are often left unexplained and unsolved. Most of us know that plastic bottles are wasteful and that we should drink from reusable ones instead. Or we are often told that we need to get all of our electricity from renewable sources within the next decade or so, which would require a major retooling of the economy, a transformation of the electrical grid, and developments in battery technology, but those undertakings are often treated as an afterthought. Somehow, it seems like these two options are given the same amount of consideration and attention. (Actually, the plastic bottle one probably gets more attention, which may be because it has a solution that’s more personally achievable and directly gratifying. Rewiring the electrical grid is not something that you or I could do alone.) We focus on the little things in the hope that they matter, so we can feel like we at least did something when the apocalypse comes. In the aggregate, these little things can matter. But it’s not really about using a plastic bottle or not using a plastic bottle (don’t think I’m letting you off the hook for your personal habits, though: we used more than 56 billion plastic bottles in the US in 20184 and we mostly don’t need to), or sipping from a paper straw or a plastic one.* It’s much bigger than those things. It’s a global problem in the most literal meaning of that word.

 

It’s about everything we use: what it’s made of, how it’s made, how we use it, what happens when we throw it away. I hope I can help you understand how complicated this stuff is—if something sounds simple, it probably isn’t. There are tradeoffs and consequences for almost everything we buy and use and eat, and if you hear about a policy or a product that sounds like a silver bullet, you’re probably not getting the full story.

 

In this book, I focused on four  areas—the Internet and technology, food, fashion, and  fuel—that we interact with every day, because, whether you think about it or not, the lives we’re all living have something to do with climate change and the environment.

 

Maybe you don’t think it’s helpful to hear how big the problem is and how we’re making it worse without thinking about it. I agree: the size of the problem and the narrative of personal responsibility is destructive! It makes us feel guilty about everything we do, even though we had no idea and weren’t in charge of setting up the cattle industry! It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to find out which type of fish is okay to eat, or which inexpensive cashmere sweater is okay to buy (which is not to say you should eat fish and wear cheap cashmere with abandon). Instead, it should be up to the company to produce cashmere responsibly or not to catch and sell fish that shouldn’t be caught and sold, since the companies making money from these activities are the experts (theoretically) who control how the product is made. That’s a change that we can demand companies make. We don’t have to buy their products if they are unwilling to at least tell us where they came from.

 

It may sound cheesy, but as I went through the five stages of environmental  grief—denial, anger, trying to use less plastic, depression,  determination—while writing this book, I came to realize in a new and powerful way that, in the end, we’re not powerless. In this country, we can vote. And that can work. In 1969, pollution in the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire for the thirteenth time because of the oil and industrial waste that were being dumped into the river, and there was also a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. The next year, activists and politicians organized the first Earth Day, which brought 20 million Americans to the metaphorical and physical streets. One of their goals was to get people to base their vote on one issue:   the environment. In the 1970 election, some of those same activists, part of Environmental Action, targeted twelve members of Congress with the worst environmental voting records, nicknaming them the “Dirty Dozen.” When seven of the twelve lost, the impact went way beyond those seven elections. It sent a message to all the other lawmakers and led directly to the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, two of the most consequential and effective pieces of environmental legislation in history.5 And it is starting to happen again: as of this writing, after the 2018 midterm election, several newly elected members of the House of Representatives, many of them young women of color, along with some senators, made the passage of a Green New Deal, an actual set of policies to combat climate change, among their first priorities.

 

No matter what happens, we are going to have to continue to fight to make a difference. The changes we need are big and complicated, and a lot of special interests are aligned against progress, so these new elected officials might not be able to make them hap-pen right  away—  we might not change the entire electrical grid in one session of  Congress—  but that’s no reason not to start. Making even small changes will definitely be much better than where we are. And better might not be perfect, but better is good.

 

As citizens, we have a responsibility to put environmentally progressive leaders in office. But it doesn’t—it can’t—end there. We have to know enough to make sense of what they’re offering, to know if it’s actually what needs to get done, and to hold them accountable for their actions. If we want to have clean electricity, grow food, manufacture goods, and get around responsibly, we have to understand what it will take to get there and we have to make it happen. Creating a context to understand those issues is what I’ve tried to do in this book, mainly by talking about our stuff. It’s up to us to create a country that takes seriously its obligations to the planet, to each other, and to the people who will be born into a world that looks different than ours has for the last 10,000 years or so. If we aren’t paying attention, others with destructive intentions or different motivations might make the decisions for us.

Essentially, what I’m describing is hard work with possibly limited success for the rest of your life. But we have to do it, and at least we will have the satisfaction of knowing we made things better. I hope this book can help, because if we don’t get started now, the world ends and the rats take over.

 

Come on, it will be fun (?)

___________

  • * On the subject of plastic straws, most of us don’t need straws, and yes, the plastic pollution caused by straws is bad for the environment. However, even if the popular estimates are correct and north of several billion straws are lying on the world’s beaches, that still would represent only about .03 percent of the 8–  13 million tons of plastic that gets into the ocean from land every year. More than half of that plastic comes from mismanaged waste from five  countries—China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. So improved municipal garbage collection would do a lot more for the turtles than a paper straw (and wouldn’t risk the moral hazard of people feeling good about not using a straw so they backslide on other  plastic-related behaviors), not to mention that I bet your coffee shop still offers to-go cups, which are often lined with plastic, plastic lids, stirrers, creamer pods, etc. So we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves on the paper straw. It might be time to reconsider  take-out and our “on-the-go” culture instead.