Every year around Earth Day, I’m reminded of papers I graded in an environmental sociology class. The assignment was to assess your values, explain how you thought you would live as an adult (about 20 years in the future), and then complete an online calculator to find out: If everyone in the world lived like you, how many planets would we need?
The students were all young and idealistic, and most cared deeply about the environment. In their papers, they professed how they would live their lives in the most sustainable ways possible — eating vegan diets, avoiding car travel, growing their own food, and so on.
Most were sure they’d find a way to make it work without sacrificing luxuries like international travel.
Then they calculated how many planets would be needed to support everyone in the world living with their ideal lifestyle. Every single student required more than one planet. Most needed about three.
These papers hit me hard emotionally. When I was their age, I was them. Only for me, those dreams are dead.
Even the most committed of them couldn’t get her environmental footprint down to what one planet can provide. There’s almost no way to live in the United States as it is now and be fully sustainable. Attempting to do so requires a constant, overwhelming amount of effort.
I know because I’ve tried to do it myself. It was exhausting, frustrating, and often unsuccessful.
The question is: What good is it to single-handedly live a green life in a society that’s racing toward catastrophic climate change? You’ll still go down with the sinking ship in the end if you’re the only one trying to bail water out of it.
Here’s what I have learned as a sociologist that I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self:
The solutions to environmental problems need to be systemic. They cannot be achieved by a group of do-gooders each trying to individually make good choices within a system designed for the opposite.
Right now, living a sustainable lifestyle is difficult because it requires going against the grain of society constantly. It means reading every label to avoid the ingredients you won’t eat, or requiring extra travel time to take the bus or bike or walk instead of driving. It’s often expensive and time consuming.
Also, systemic solutions need to work for all of us.
Environmental policies reflect the power dynamics within our society. If mostly white, urban, middle to upper class, college-educated people — the people hold the most power in our society — make our environmental policies, then the policies they craft will work best for themselves, and less well (or not at all) for other groups of people.
The rich and the powerful are often hypocrites. They might grow organic gardens or drive electric cars but live in a huge home (or several) and take multiple international trips each year. Instead of inflicting hardship on more marginalized groups — with bad policy or bad habits — they should begin by holding a mirror up to themselves.
Until we reach a place where we find solutions collectively in a way that is inclusive of all groups within our society, and until we make sustainable living the default or easy choice, we won’t reach the point where the one planet we’ve got can support all of us.
• Jill Richardson is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her column first appeared at OtherWords.org.