Little environmentalisms for the not-so-perfect kids

By Florence Wu

Sabrina Templeton

I wish that I were here to tell you a success story. But two months after declaring myself vegetarian, I found myself happily devouring a plate of Korean fried chicken with friends. 

I’ve moved away from the culture of perfectionism that is often associated with being an environmentalist, reflecting on my dedication to the movement and what it looks like. Though I continue to reduce meat in my diet, I allow myself more flexibility during social events.

Despite my admiration for friends who are flawlessly vegan and plastic-free, their lifestyle is intimidating for someone just starting out. The list of boxes to check feels overwhelming: buy a metal straw, take public transportation, turn vegan, watch your carbon footprint, shop responsibly… 

The current sustainability culture needs a reframing to be more “beginner-friendly.”  Environmental perfectionism can turn average individuals away from the movement, especially given the binary options of either being with or against hardcore environmentalism. The guilt and pressure associated with never doing enough threaten to turn environmentalism into an exclusive club for pious devotees.

Perhaps it is better to frame the lifestyle of environmentally conscious consumption as a spectrum: it is OK if you are not ready to completely give up plastic products, but perhaps you can start with buying a metal straw or taking shorter showers. We should all feel motivated to lighten our carbon footprint, but we shouldn’t feel required to re-orient our lives all at once.

Too often, the concentration on grand, ambitious goals overshadows the effects our daily habits can have. “Look, what we ordinary people do is not gonna matter as long as those big corporations don’t stop polluting,” is one of the most common reasons I’ve heard for individual inaction. 

The pessimism is understandable, given the domination of multinational corporations in our world. Yet the assertion is also dependent on what you consider to “matter.” If the only things that “matter” are stopping global warming and achieving complete carbon neutrality, then we as individuals will look insignificant. 

But these are not the only stakes at hand.

While those goals are important, it is also helpful to anchor environmentalism down in what is close, intimate and personal to us. It can be something as small as fostering a connection with the land that you are currently standing on or cutting the elastic strings off your discarded masks so that a few birds may be saved from strangling. When you displace the climate crisis and the doomsday rhetoric with local, personal objectives, sustainability becomes an issue of marginal improvements — every action matters because every additional life reached, plant or animal, matters.

Florence Wu is a member of the class of 2022.