Much has been made of the speech Greta Thunberg made at the United Nations in late September about the need for immediate action on the climate crisis. Her stare-down of Donald Trump went viral instantly.
Some praise the speech for being inspiring and motivating and others describe it as too angry and vitriolic, perhaps because it made them feel guilty.
It was a bit of both – inspiring and guilt-inducing – for me. How could I not be inspired by a 16-year-old girl who had spent two weeks on a boat crossing the Atlantic, no doubt being tossed wildly on the salty brine, to be consistent with her long-term refusal to fly due to its negative environmental impact? How could her words at the U.N. not inspire anyone who cares at all for this planet?
Convenience over conscience
And, as they should have, her words that day also made me feel guilty. There was a time when I paid attention to the environmental impact of my personal choices, but for too long now I have put convenience ahead of those concerns. Yes, I recycle and compost. No, I don’t leave my car idling, even when it is really cold. Yes, I carry my own reusable grocery bags. No, I don’t buy water in bottles; well, hardly ever.
I have become lazy. I claim that I am too busy to walk to my neighbourhood library, so I drive, even though the walk takes only about five minutes. In fact, I drive almost everywhere. I take no pride in admitting that I have never been on public transit in the city where I have lived for many years.
I stopped washing out my peanut butter container and taking it back to the store for a refill, finding it more convenient to buy a new container every time. Sometimes, I throw out plastic bags rather than washing them.
I have two refrigerators and three freezers, having convinced myself that I need to have everything I could possibly need at my fingertips, not listening to the little voice that tells me I have so much food that I often can’t find what I need on those overcrowded shelves anyway.
Listening to Greta take on the adults of the world has reinvigorated me to pay more attention to the impact I have on the planet’s survival. In response to her challenge, I have implemented a personal improvement plan.
My partner and I decided to get rid of one refrigerator and one freezer by the end of the year. The refrigerator has been dealt with, and we are steadily working to consolidate our freezer contents so we can eliminate one.
We had to get rid of a shameful amount of food that had either gone bad or was unidentifiable, but we are hoping that was a one-time event. Now that we are down to one fridge that is not overloaded with bits of this and that, we can actually see what is in it, so should waste less.
Never again in my life will I have to buy anchovies, capers, mustard or olives. In fact, if you need any of these ingredients, just let me know and I will bring them to you – on foot, of course.
I am trying to improve my behaviour in a few other ways. For now, I have a rule that I cannot go out in the car unless I have at least two things to do. I hope to expand that rule to increase the number of errands I can run on foot. After all, as I have written here in the past, when I am in San Miguel each winter, I walk everywhere and feel better for it.
I have purchased reusable vegetable and fruit bags so I don’t have to keep accumulating all those cheap plastic bags. Yesterday, I took a clean, used peanut butter container to the store for a refill. I am trying a new kind of dish soap, a bar, that has no packaging and, so far, seems to get the dishes clean. I am cutting back my showers by one per week, unless people tell me I look or smell dirty.
Our car sports a carbon tax bumper sticker, even though, I have to admit, I don’t really understand anything about the science or economics of carbon emissions or taxation.
Now that I look at my little list, my efforts feel pretty paltry. I have plans for more: no purchased paper wrapping supplies for the upcoming festive season; finding sources for refillable toiletries and cosmetics, and so on. Other suggestions are welcome.
I also worry that I will get bored with these small, if well-intentioned efforts and will go back to my lazy ways. Writing this piece is, in part, an attempt to shame myself out of doing just that.
What about flying?
Travel poses a real challenge. My work requires me to move around the province and country a lot. (Last week, I flew to and from Edmonton and next week I am flying to Whitehorse.) My aged parents live some distance away from me. I like to travel on my own time, too, exploring different parts of this country. And, I spend time every winter in Mexico.
The train is great, except when it is not. I do not understand why VIA is so frequently late – not by five or 10 minutes, but by 30 minutes or more – when, in most parts of the world, the trains run on time, almost to the second. VIA also does not offer great schedules: to take the train from where I live to see my parents – a four-hour drive – I have to allow a full day, with a lengthy stopover in Toronto. As a result, I drive more than I would like to.
There is no VIA service to some of the places in northern Ontario where I work. Sometimes I drive, but if the drive would take more than a day, I fly.
I know air travel has an enormously negative impact on the planet; but what am I to do? If the work I am flying somewhere to do has social value does that excuse the air travel? How many times do I have to re-use my peanut butter container to compensate for flying to and from Mexico each year? Can we get some kind of personal carbon credits just for trying to do our best?
The giant question looming over my head is this: does what I do personally make a jot of difference? If governments and corporations continue to ignore the reality of the climate crisis, if most of us in the most privileged part of the world continue to choose convenience over the environment, does it really matter that I reused my peanut butter container?
I know that the answer is no but, at least for now, I need to do something, as small as it is. Maybe it matters for that reason alone or maybe it matters because our own actions might inspire others, just as Greta’s actions inspired me.