Justifying Sustainable Living: Doing vs. Knowing

Mo D’s comment over at my “Paper, Plastic, or Neither” post brought up something I’ve been struggling with:

fork in the road

[Photo by Roger Cullman]

How does a student maintain a sustainable lifestyle at home and away? There are relatively simple things one can do to drastically cut back on the amount of waste one produces, such as bringing to school reusable:

  • Water containers
  • Coffee mugs
  • Cutlery
  • Food containers

But why stop there? Arguably, if one is bringing the above there is no excuse one should also not bring:

  • Reusable dishes when one decides to eat out
  • A cloth towel, instead of paper towel, to dry one’s hands

And if you really wanted to get picky:

  • Sugar (for your coffee) in a reusable container to avoid using all those pesky little packages
  • A roll of environmentally friendly toilet paper

At what point do you give up? When have you done enough? Does the average person know how much of a difference they make to the global waste bin when they bring their own fork everyday, or avoid napkins? After speaking with a number of people about this, I’ve come to the following wholly unscientific conclusion:

Most people have absolutely no concept of how much stuff they actually use (or avoid using, as the case may be) on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis.

For example, I asked my lab-mate why she used a reusable coffee mug. Unsurprisingly, she replied, “To reduce the amount of garbage and resources I am responsible for using.” I then proceeded to ask her, “How do you know that?” She looked at me blankly, “I don’t know – I guess I just assume it takes less energy to make one travel mug instead of 100’s of paper cups.” This is how most people feel (rather than think) about living sustainably – they experience a certain amount of guilt associated with their waste, and attempt to mitigate it by making small adjustments to their lives.

But is the underlying premise for their feelings justified? Is there a carbon-neutral scale that we can compare our travel mug against, and know when it has been used enough times to pay off its ecological footprint? How does this compare with using and recycling paper cups? Furthermore, how does one place value on a particular resource? Is it better or worse to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than to use a couple extra gallons of water and petroleum products in the production of the travel mug?

These are incredibly difficult questions to answer (check out this excellent post for a look how this is done using Life Cycle Analysis)- yet we (i.e. those who are willing to commit to a more sustainable lifestyle) expect everyone to intrinsically know their answers: shut up and do it.

This brings me back to my initial point: when is enough enough? Do we undergo a personal cost-benefit analysis when we makes the decision to live more sustainably – do we consciously weigh the perceived benefit from such actions (somehow saving our planet from an untimely demise) with the cost on our current lifestyle (…shit, how they hell do I fit a ceramic bowl into my bag?)?

I think so, otherwise you’d see a lot more people with a roll of toilet paper tied to their backpacks, the loose end flapping behind them as they hurriedly make their way to the nearest can. Therefore, are our actions at all noble when considering their ramifications on the environment?

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com