Zero Waste & Veganism No Longer Cut The Mustard In This Climate Crisis

So much changed in my life in 2019. It was a big year for me and I’m still very much processing it all as I ride the wave into this new decade that promises to be many things, including bizarre and chaotic from what I’ve seen at first glance. The themes that resonate above all else are vulnerability and communication. I’ll elaborate on those in a little bit.

I moved to Arizona a few months ago for an entirely new chapter in my life. I’ll be here a while; I’m in Grad School now. It’s hard. My brain is constantly being pushed to its limit. Plus, I’m in America; the land of “more is more”, “guns = life” and, supposedly, “each man for himself”.

I went through a pretty arduous but liberating process ridding my life of almost all of my possessions before I left Bristol last summer. Only the essentials made the cut and so I’ve been starting life, effectively, from scratch. And do you know what? It has been bloody marvelous.

One of the things that I’ve been struck by is the sheer kindness of total strangers since I’ve moved here. To help me get around, find my way when I’m lost, give me things “to get you started”, invite me to social gatherings, introduce me to people, buy me dinner, ask me about myself and be genuinely interested…the list goes on.

Perhaps it’s because I’m in my spiritual homeland and, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that when we’re where we’re meant to be, magical stuff happens. Or, perhaps it’s because America has this sense of community and “love thy neighbour” that’s infectious and undercuts the bullshit capitalist/corporate nonsense thrust upon its people by the powers that be. Either way, people have become my priority.

I still call myself an environmentalist; arguably more so now than ever before, actually. And it has always been that way. Ever since I was a kid organising litter-picking groups and volunteering outdoors, I’ve made life choices to study, document and communicate environmental destruction, highlighting the need for greater awareness about a myriad conundrums. I’ve tried to have the lowest impact without infringing on my own happiness or mental health. I can hand-on-heart say that I’ve always try to do what’s right.

Only, I don’t exist in a vacuum.

Over the past few years, I’ve lived a very privileged life. I’ve had a decent job, lived in a great city, had a healthy body and no dependents etc. I’ve spent my days indulging in a trendy and pretentious, “I’m vegan, no thank you, no straw, please” bubble of pretending that that is enough. That eating exclusively vegan is somehow God-like, or lugging my “zero waste essentials” kit everywhere with me is elevating me to Sainthood.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with taking tofu over pork in your ramen or getting a pumpkin spice latte in your own to-go cup, but when these choices come at the cost of isolation and disconnection from others, I’m not so sure I still agree with them. Nor do I agree with blindly accepting anything (no matter how vegan/zero waste-ish) without considering the supply chain. There are huge issues with a lot of soy and bamboo coffee cups – remember that!

Since I’ve lived here, for the sake of maintaining my sanity and not having a total breakdown, I’ve had to adopt a go-with-the-flow mentality. Moving abroad, processing the change in culture, having to make a whole bunch of new friends, learning my way around a new place, navigating a change in career (and not being funny, but, like, a really fucking challenging one at that), it would have just been too much for me to keep the reins really tight on myself and refuse to consume any plastic or animal products, as I was trying my best to do for a while in Bristol.

I’ve attended seminars with free pizza and I’ve eaten it. I’ve been recommended the “best burritos in town” (cheese mandatory) and I’ve devoured them, often whilst sat contentedly staring at a cactus for 20 minutes or more. I’ve purchased nachos in a styrofoam container. I regularly buy groceries packaged in plastic. I’ve eaten fish and enjoyed every bite. There are a bunch of things. But, do you know what? I’ve never been happier in my entire life.

To clarify: I don’t think that you need to eat animal products or consume single-use plastic to be happy; you can do without either when you’re in the groove. Rather, it’s the barriers I’ve done my best to dissolve, allowing for fruitful, meaningful connections with others that has really given me the good feels throughout this settling-in process.

See, we’re all the same. We all want what we think is best for ourselves and our loved ones, based on the ways that we have been raised and the experiences we’ve encountered. Sometimes kindness to the environment factors into that. Sometimes it doesn’t, unfortunately. One thing I have learned is that amazing things happen when people feel a part of something greater than themselves. That old sense of community I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that. We see it most profoundly in times of crisis which – although tragic – warms my heart. Just take a look at Australia right now.

We live in a time where the societal constructs favour isolation and loneliness. Depressing as that is to consider, lengthy work weeks and life within a cell phone do not equal the magic formula for love and connection. Neither does an economy built on the absolute requirement for its participants to perpetuate the high turnover of cheaply made, disposable items once coveted, rapidly diminished to garbage.

It’s not enough that we try to do our bit in isolation. It’s easy to be able to go to the grocery store, fill the cart with plant-based foods, pack the stuff in reusable totes and be done with it. We desperately need more than that, though. We need to work towards healthier communities where no person is left behind. We must listen better, prioritise healthy minds and spirits, fight constantly for equality amongst all peoples and most importantly find common ground where it appears – on the surface – as though there is none.

A few weeks ago, I saw a group of people picketing for veganism on a street corner outside a major grocery store. While I considered myself vegan for a long time and think it’s great to forgo animal products in the name of a healthier planet, this tactic as a means of converting the masses simply doesn’t work. In the same way that it’s ineffective to ram your religion down another’s throat and expect a positive response, so too is trying to shame others into eating what you eat. Your intentions might be pure and the message important for the collective wellbeing, but if you don’t convey it in a way that’s digestible, it’ll stay solely in your sphere.

I have a friend that works for a company that specialises in helping organisations in disagreement over environmental issues find common ground and rationally work towards solutions that everyone can agree upon. They consider the concerns of all parties involved with equal respect. This is how we need to approach all of our issues when it comes to the best path forward through our current climate crisis. We all think we know best; that our facts are the right ones to be taken as gospel. Scientific evidence must be brought to the table, though, and used at the basis of any decision-making. That’s where we’re tremendously lacking and it’s a total embarassment considering the mind-blowing bounty of resources available that all point at a different way of doing things despite leaders creating policies based on opinions.

Find. Common. Ground. Do what these leaders aren’t doing, because you’re smarter. Share your struggles, embrace the hardships and know that it’s OK to lean on others for support. Be open to having your opinions swayed. Be receptive to learning new things. Be comfortable challenging the very foundations upon which your beliefs have been built.

In one of my cell biology classes this past semester, we delved into the mechanics of actin and myosin filaments in helping cells do stuff like contract and move things around. The take-home message was that cells must be dynamic in order to be healthy. Nerdy as it sounds, I very much take this as a metaphor for life. Nothing is static. What can you think of that does well when it stagnates? Nothing. No, we like fresh and flowing and I encourage you to approach your thoughts and beliefs with the same logic. Be open to moving with the times; the survival of this planet depends on it.

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