cover image

Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

The Problem with Today’s Environmentalism

Environmentalism shouldn’t be a movement. It should be as timeless, long term and undisputed as education and social welfare.

You have probably heard this before.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition is the organization responsible for the wildly popular plastic straw movement that swept across the world in mid-2018. This coalition aims to raise awareness of the issue of plastic consumption, by using plastic straws as a talking point. According to PPC’s website, plastic never goes away, poisons the food chain and harms sea creatures. This places the average global citizen in an awkward position. One is expected to feel the all-too-familiar guilt of being alive in this ignorant, greedy and consumerist world. The website implies that you – yes, you! – can change this by making your own pledge to refuse the plastic straw, mother of all evil. In a blatantly condescending manner, it relates the heart wrenching dilemma of plastic waste in the United States and around the world. We – human beings – are cancerous to this earth.
The movement quickly went global, with the hashtag #StopSucking blowing up, an endorsement from the world’s favorite environmentalist David Attenborough himself, the rise of trendy plastic and metal alternatives and Starbucks announcing a complete ban of plastic straws in all its products by 2020. The unfortunate reality of this optimistic campaign did very little to reduce the eight million tons of plastic that leaked into our ocean in 2018. Even if the project was successful and every single American stopped using plastic straws, plastic waste would only be reduced by 0.2% at most. The plastic straw movement represents a certain brand of environmentalism that relies on costly reusable coffee cups and environmentalism doesn’t have to look like this. The eco-warrior movement is tired and in dire need of a facelift. The self-righteous and often extreme gestures that are characteristic of this particular brand of environmentalism are ultimately harmful and do not assist us as our species seeks a more sustainable relationship with the planet.
The main issue with this branch of environmentalism is its obsession with the tiny gesture, and how little it actually does. In the age of the internet and social media, attention spans are waning and people have very little time for issues that don’t fit into 280 characters. This brand of environmentalism revolves around hashtags, tweets and Facebook posts about pipelines, fracking and national parks. This phenomenon is so common that it has even been given a name in a recent Guardian article: clicktivism. Posting a hashtag about plastic straws may make one feel like they’re “doing their bit”, but often does not translate into real life action. Individuals can therefore afford to dismiss any thoughts about reducing other forms of waste in their lives, much less transforming the consumer-driven system which allows the production of so much waste in the first place. This dismissal is also due to the fact that we often feel so small in the face of big environmental issues such as climate change and extinction. These gestures, en masse, would actually make a difference. However, they can be unsustainable when attempted on an isolated, individual level. All too often, our well-meaning efforts to cut down on meat consumption and bring a to-go cup to the Library Cafe dissolve with the slow passage of time. I apologize to fellow environmentalists in my head as I take a Grab and Go cup of fruit in the dining hall, but that tiny pang of guilt quickly dissolves as well. Scattered individual actions against the system, without drive and cumulation, are doomed to fail. We all subconsciously accept that, despite our best efforts, environmentally friendly widespread habits are impossibly laborious to form alone.
This brand of environmentalism also relies on trendy new gadgets and expensive eating habits to remain hip and relevant. It seems obvious to me that most of the world does not have access to superfluous environmental gimmicks such as reusable metal straws with specially designed pipe cleaners or beeswax and muslin fabric to make reusable plastic wrap replacements. The movement makes an individual feel guilty for simply not having the time to sew one’s own clothes, plant one’s own herb gardens or compost one’s own waste. Environmentalism shouldn’t shame and guilt trip the layperson for their daily habits, breeding cynicism and apathy. It is naive to think that living with sustainability in mind looks the same everywhere on the planet.
Some groups are frustrated by this lack of agency that the average environmentally conscious person feels on a daily basis, and take matters into their own hands with increasingly more dramatic methods of protest. One such controversial group recently featured on the media outlet Vice is the animal rights group [Direct Action Everywhere](DxE( Wayne Hsiung, cofounder of DxE, faces 60 years of jail time for trespassing in a factory farm and stealing pigs. According to Vice, this group has even been labelled as terrorists for crimes of theft, break-ins, trespassing and civil disobedience. These organizations are not setting a good example for the average citizen, with better and more productive things to do than rot in jail for the rest of their lives, all for the sake of a few farm animals. Instead, they are harming the public’s perception of the environmental movement.
I believe environmentalism should no longer be treated as a movement. Instead, I propose that we need a new focus on improving technology and education, and make environmentally friendly consumption habits difficult to break, rather than form. Especially within small communities where behavioral patterns spread, behavioral economics is a useful tool at our disposal, and tells us that we can be easily persuaded to make the most sensible choice if it’s presented to us first. Furthermore, it will reduce our dignity if we do not comply or there are no easily available alternatives.
To give a benign example, I am much less likely to take a Grab-and-Go cup of fruit from the NYU Abu Dhabi Dining Hall if I spot a member of Ecoherence behind me in the queue. Applying this mentality on a much larger scale, subtly nudging the individual to make more sustainable choices is much better than isolated actions in small, exclusive and often condescending groups. We need environmentalism to be a steady and persistent force, rather than a loud and obnoxious subset of society. Environmentalism shouldn’t be a movement. It should be as timeless, long term and undisputed as education and social welfare.
This branch of environmentalism has one thing right, though. Real, systemic change must be both incremental and dramatic. But stopping the use of plastic straws, or going to prison for the sake of a few pigs, draws attention to the wrong things.
Katie Glasgow-Palmer is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo