Earth Day is coming up and I am having a hard time with climate change. It’s such a big, complicated issue. Climate change, according to Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), is inherently abstract, scientifically complex, and globally diffused in causes and consequences. People have a hard time grasping the concept, let alone taking action. What can one person do to have an impact on such an overriding problem?
Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that way.
Research shows that most Americans are aware of climate change and even rank it as a concern, but they don’t perceive it on a par with, say, the economic downturn or health care reform. According to CRED, most Americans do not currently associate climate change with disastrous impacts, such as drought, extreme weather events, and coastal flooding. And although most people can recite at least a few things they could do to help mitigate global climate change (like replacing light bulbs or carrying reuseable grocery bags) – most are not doing them.
I’m ashamed to say, I’m in that category. I forget my grocery bags. I use the car when I should really walk. I wash dishes by hand rather than using the dishwasher. (What’s that? Did you know that a running faucet can waste 2.5 gallons of water every minute! So if I do the dishes by hand and it takes me 15 minutes, I’ve just wasted 37.5 gallons of water. It’s better for me to run the dishwasher – which uses only 11 gallons of water per use – even if it isn’t full. But I’m an old dog and habits die hard.) It’s not easy, is it? Don’t you just feel like throwing up your hands?
I’m faced with decisions every day in our fabric collection that could have far reaching effects – for example, a supplier wants to know if it’s o.k. to use the mill which has antiquated water treatment because that mill is closer (thereby reducing the energy needed for transport) and, not least, they’re cheaper! There it is again – Cost. The bottom line in most decisions. And if we decide to go with the sub optimal water treatment, we might gain a cost advantage (so YOU might buy the fabric) but what will it mean in terms of the health of our children and the kind of world we leave them?
Each day I do more research into the effects that synthetic chemicals are having on us and our environment. It chills me and I really believe that we’re causing ourselves harm. We’re playing Russian roulette with the chemical mix we allow in our systems – thinking that since we’re not sick now it’s really nothing we have to worry about. I absolutely believe that long term effects of our love affair with synthetic chemicals will be profound and that we must do something to stem the tide. I proselytize to expectant mothers (I can’t help myself) about using organic fabrics and mattresses for their infants and themselves – because much of the research shows exposure in utero is when the most harm can be done. But research also shows that future consequences are discounted, so people think they’ll just put off thinking of this until they have more time.
I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that we still behave in destructive ways – we don’t buy organic foods because it costs more (and it’s not gonna kill us – tomorrow, anyway), we forget our reuseable grocery bags and we don’t take the time to replace light bulbs. It’s like losing weight or exercising – we know it’s good for us, but we still don’t do it.
A report entitled The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, released by CRED, looks at how people process information and decide to take action … or not. It seems people can deal with only so much bad news at a time before they tune out. Social scientists call this the “finite pool of worry”. And for really big threats like climate change, people are likely to alleviate their worries by taking only one action, even if it’s in their best interest to take more than one action.
For Americans, recycling has become the catchall green measure, the one action that anybody can do and feel that they’re doing something. As with every action, there are costs and benefits. The recycling of some products, such as computers and other electronics, creates a more severe strain on the environment that do other types of products, such as newsprint. Again, even this topic is so fraught with subtleties and variety that dissecting it is hard.
I’d like to focus on plastics because the textile industry has concentrated sustainability efforts on recycled polyesters – many fabric collections claim green credentials because certain of their fabrics are made of recycled, rather than virgin, polyester. And we all smile and pat ourselves on the back because we’re doing something – and hey, it doesn’t even cost any more.
Polyester is just one of the many plastics that are in use today; plastic recycling – bottles, packaging, bags – has been adopted as the mascot of our green efforts – as one school program says, it “teaches children social responsibility and reinforces learning to respect and take care of the environment”. But what does plastic recycling really accomplish?