So it goes without saying that the world is probably doomed as far as long term human life as we know it is concerned. I’m sorry to say it, considering this is where we all live and there’s no foreseeable alternative.
I should establish some groundwork here: there are multiple environmental problems with the world, of which climate change is easily the most existential. It is undeniably caused by human activity in the form of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
There is very little that we as individuals can do about that in terms of our direct actions. It doesn’t matter how much you change your individual carbon footprint, it matters very little. There’s some argument for aggregate numbers of people changing their behaviour (if everyone does it then it will help), but it’s not that simple because our ability to do so entirely depends on factors like infrastructure and public policy.
Trash is, of course, a huge problem, but not directly in terms of climate change. It affects animals, environmental beauty, habitats, and economies directly. However, its relation to the existential threat of climate change is a bit more nuanced. Plastics are a byproduct of refining oil, and so the reduction of its consumption has an effect that way, but it’s a side-effect of our dependency on carbon fuels. Changing our relationship to single-use plastics and waste is not a bad thing, and animal and habitat rescue is a great thing, but it’s still important to separate it from climate change. Not all environmental issues are made the same, though there’s no rule that says you can’t work on both.
It’s also important to note that for billions of people, plastic enables them to work, live, and provide for their families. Arguing for reduction or behaviour change is easy when you can afford to and have had the education to have options, but not providing some kind of alternative would be just as irresponsible.
Ultimately, making personal choices to limit your carbon footprint and even to limit your single-use plastic consumption suffers from the same problem: it doesn’t actually matter what you do. The desire to pursue individual action is understandable because in the face of such a crisis as climate change we often look to see what we can do ourselves, but ultimately doesn’t actually do much more than just make ourselves feel better.
As mentioned before, what actually does enable change has to come from government policy in the form of carbon taxes, infrastructure, and so on. No other large scale social actor has the power to do so nor the accountability to the desires of ordinary people.
You cannot recycle without the infrastructure to do so. There have been famous recent news reports where recycling actually just gets shipped off to other countries, so out of sight, out of mind.
You cannot reduce carbon fuels without broad infrastructure. Over 90% of carbon emissions come from large scale industry, like coal power plants and so on. It sounds straightforward to replace those with renewables or other alternatives, but the change would be comprehensive, requiring expertise, technology, and long term political will.
While your choice of vehicle can, sure, make some impact, it is very little compared to the industry which produces them, and the infrastructure which enables them. Most people cannot afford to change their means of transportation, and that’s assuming there are public or electric options available. Even a public transportation option might be powered by coal power plants.
If this sounds hopeless, it mostly is. It is not, however, completely hopeless. The desire to make personal life changes to help fight climate change is totally understandable, but honestly, climate change is not your fault. The way we got into this mess is how most of us got educated, lowered death rates, infant mortality, lengthened our life spans, created social and economic opportunities for women and across the world. What is making us better is also what is costing us.
This is what makes political action the most important route to combat climate change. It’s not about your plastic, your light switch, or your car. This is what makes movements like the climate strike and Extinction Rebellion vitally important. Their goal is to effect political change.
It might already be too late, but that doesn’t make the effort not worth trying. While changing your own behaviour might help you feel better, the only real way to help the environment is to make sure the people who actually do have the power to change things will know that it’s important to you.