There is a stigma of perfectionism around environmentalism which arguably does more harm than good. By definition, perfection is unattainable. Therefore, the concept of perfectionism is more alienating than it is inspiring. When it comes to environmentalism, this is can be damaging.
“Better” and “Worse” Choices
It is impossible to live a zero-impact life. Just by existing, you are exhibiting a carbon footprint. Equally, all products have a carbon footprint. But we need certain things to survive and so we have to engage in some level of consumerism. Therefore, we do inevitably buy things that contribute to our carbon footprint.
However, you can make “better” or “worse” choices. For example, most of us have to go to work. Let’s say you live 30 minutes away from work. You can either get the bus or drive yourself. The “better” choice here is the bus: the bus is driving the journey anyway and if you’re on it, then that’s one less car on the road.
That was a relatively simple example: choice 1 (bus) has a much lower carbon footprint than choice 2 (car). But the thing with environmentalism is, it’s inherently complex. What if the bus takes 1 hour and the car takes 30 minutes? Furthermore, what if the more obviously “greener” choice, isn’t what it seems?
Let’s say the zero-waste store is a 30-minute drive from where you live, but a regular supermarket is a 5-minute walk. Do you drive to the zero-waste store, your boot/trunk brimming with Tupperwares and tote bags, to avoid plastic packaging on your food; or do you walk to the supermarket and accept that your pasta and vegetables might be individually wrapped in plastic?
Environmentalism involves constant trade-offs like these, and it’s important not to beat yourself up for not being perfect. It’s also important not to be deterred from trying to make environmentally conscious choices. Just because you can’t be perfect, doesn’t mean you can’t help.
What is environmentalism?
Another added complication of environmentalism is, it’s an umbrella term for a lot of different stuff. Tackling climate change, preventing pollution, and conserving wildlife: all of these (massive) movements come under ‘environmentalism’. While they have similar overall objectives (a more sustainable and greener future), they are nuanced in their approaches and multifaceted in their aims. Balancing every branch of environmentalism in every decision you make is almost impossible. Balancing every branch of environmentalism overall in your lifestyle is much more achievable and much more beneficial.
The Achilles Heel
Convenience is the Achilles heel of most environmentalists. The ‘easy’ sustainable choices often do not have the biggest impact. Yes, it’s great you use your reusable coffee cup and don’t accept straws anymore, but neither of those things massively affect your carbon footprint or prevent the decline of endangered species. Plastic pollution and climate change are often conflated together, whereas their only real overlap is the carbon used in the manufacturing and distribution of plastic products. If you want to help tackle climate change, then you need to make choices that reduce your individual carbon emissions. If you want to tackle plastic pollution then you need to make choices that minimize how much single-use plastic you are using and dispose of plastic in a sustainable way so it doesn’t end up on land-fill. If you want to tackle the decline of biodiversity, then you need to make choices that conserve nature and wildlife.
Some sustainable choices are easier and cheaper than the alternative (e.g. reusable coffee cups or moon cups). But sometimes it’s quicker to jump in the car. It’s also ‘simpler’ to stick with what you know. Some people don’t want to learn to cook vegetarian food or stop buying from cheap well-known fast fashion giants over sustainable fashion brands. If you stick with the norm, you don’t have to do any research, go anywhere new, or try anything different. Many people don’t want to sacrifice convenience for sustainability, and until sustainability becomes the norm, this will continue to hinder the movement.
What you can do
Strive for progress, not perfectionism. Accept that you can never be the perfect environmentalist, and use this to motivate you to be the best you possibly can be. Don’t worry that you cannot be 100% zero waste, flawlessly vegan, carbon-neutral all the time or save every species yourself. Just worry about what you can do and inspiring others to do the same. In the words of Earthrise Studio:
“If you have to be perfect, we’d have a very small movement.”
We do not need a few perfect people: we need everyone to TRY.
Here’s some simple things anyone can do:
- Minimise your single-use plastic waste. Reuse plastic before recycling it. Throw away as little as possible.
- Minimise your carbon transport footprint: utilise public transport as much as you can (if/when it is safe to do so with the pandemic) and walk/cycle short journeys.
- Minimise your meat consumption. Start by cutting down and gradually reduce it. Why not try going 4 or 5 days a week without meat?
- Compost! 6.6million tonnes of food was wasted in the UK in 2018, 70% of which could have been eaten.
- Buy second hand clothes.
- Support local and sustainable businesses.
- Support conservation efforts and organisations.
- Only plant indigenous species in your gardens and homes. Avoid invasives or introduced species which could negatively impact local wildlife.