Too Much Information on a Very Bad News Sunday

Oh God, oh God, oh God. My darlings, I am very, very sorry, but posts are going to start getting quite depressing. You might want to click over somewhere else without an existential environmental crisis in progress.

You know how they say 'A Little Information is Dangerous'? Well, I can never stop at a little information, I always need to find out more, which in this case is turning out to be very dangerous indeed... for the continuation of normal, middle-class family life as we know it. The poor Man. He is sitting in meetings on the other side of the world, and in a couple of weeks will come home to a mad woman.

So it all started a few weeks ago, when I became completely mentally paralysed at the discovery that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has reached 400ppm for the first time in human history. I have always considered myself as a fairly 'green' citizen. I recycle, walk, grow food, limit my consumption of 'stuff', donate to worthy environmental projects, always take my reusable bags.. but suddenly, I saw that was not enough. We in the developed world are using so much more than our share of the world's carbon budget. I did some research and discovered that the world's richest citizens (that's us) need to reduce our impact on the environment by NINETY percent to stabilise the warming of the planet at two degrees. It is already too late for that, but something to aim at. Two countries to look at for comparison are Indonesia, whose citizens use just less than 10% of our emissions, and Turkey, who use just a little more than 10%. I am currently struggling to imagine what 10% of the average Australian power/consumer goods/fuel usage might look like.

Then I started to look at waste. Most of our waste is food, a terrible disgrace in a hungry world, and plastic, which is made of million-year-old sunlight, and turned into items which are 'disposable'. Plastic bags, packaging, pens, drink bottles. Except they aren't in any way disposable. A paper bag, a wooden spoon - they will sink back into the earth from which they came. Plastic may be ground down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it will be with us forever.

Who hasn't seen this image, taken by film maker Chris Jordan? The baby albatross, stomach heartbreakingly filled with plastic detritus from the ocean that the parent albatross mistook for food.

I read about Chris Jordan's work in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel. Freinkel makes the point that the body of the tiny dead albatross is slowly returning to the earth, but that little pile of plastic will remain, unchanged. And all I can see is the physical legacy I will be leaving my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. An enormous pile of plastic, used once by me, then trapped in a landfill, essentially forever.

And that stuff is killing us. Freinkel interviews toxicologists and medical researchers, and examines a number of studies which all point to the fact that plastic leaks - into our bodies, and into our food, with any number of effects that science is only now starting to work out.

In skipping about the interweb in between being crazy taxi mother, homework enabling mother, supporting exam crises mother and chief cook this weekend, I found this blog. Taina Uitto decided to live for a year without plastic, then found there was no going back. One of her most interesting posts was this one. A few months into her plastic-free life, her endometriosis pain lessened significantly. Her boyfriend's eczema went away. I have a very dear family member who has suffered with endometriosis for too many years. I have a darling daughter with eczema.

I don't know about you, but I knew one single person with cancer when I was a child in the 1970s. One friend with asthma. Never even heard of autism, and no one was allergic to anything except bee stings. Something has happened to our collective health in forty years. It may be plastic, or pollutants, or food additives. I don't know, but I don't want a part of any of it any more. I don't want to contribute to that mountain of plastic, or feed my kids toxic food or use more than my share of carbon.

So, I am going to quit this ugly, evil, modern industrial apocalypse. Enough already. I don't know how I am going to do this, exactly. It may take some time. But I woke up the other morning and thought - I don't have to do this anymore. So I won't. I will be a citizen, a worker, a maker, a gardener, a thoughtful purchaser of products that do not cost, quite literally, the earth. But not a consumer. I refuse to use up the future.


Anonymous said…
Kudos! I, too, am an anticonsumer. I wear op shop clothes (when I have to buy new ones that is ;) ) and I do my level best to make as much of what we need as I can myself. We are working towards being as self sufficient as we can and supporting our local economy whenever we can by buying local and out of the wrapper. I read yesterday that 70% of the urine samples taken from Europe were contaminated by Glyphosate. Plastic is just the start of this revolution back to basics and away from what we humans have been doing to our environment and ultimately to ourselves for the past 100 years. In only 100 years we have buggered it all to hell and its up to us to take up our shovels, our seedlings, our piles of detrius and our will to survive and at least do SOMETHING about rectifying the damage that we have done. Don't despair, it takes away your will for change. Instead, look at the positive steps you can take to educate your children, yourself and apply it to what you do. If we all did this, we CAN change the world. What's done is done but we can change some of the prognosis. It's up to us and while we still have breath and we still have a world to work with there is still hope :)
Heather said…
I have long been a believer that a lot of the illnesses that people get that have no apparent cause are due to all the toxic preservatives and trans fats, etc, that we consume in our food. I never put too much thought into all the plastic that we contain the food in leaching into the food.

That being said, you sound as if you feel the weight of the world upon your shoulders right now.

I think individually we can all make a difference in our own homes with our own habits. We can teach our children and friends and hope that they pass on the knowledge. The impact may be minimal for such a monumental problem, but it is something. You already have a larger audience with your blog than others may have. I'm out here listening to you. You have already affected some of my behavior in my own home.

I guess what I am saying is that you can only do what you can do. It may not save the whole world, but it WILL make a difference.
I insist you read this book: Mobilizing the Green Imagination by Anthony Weston (it's on, at least in the U.S.; if for some reason you can't get it, let me know and I'll send you a copy).

I'm reading it right now, and it's the happiest book about climate change I've ever read (I've read a bunch, and they've all left me in despair). Not because it denies climate change (it doesn't at all), but the author envisions wholesale changes we can make that may help reduce climate change and also adapt to it. We need to revision and re-imagine.

Climate change is real and it's going to wreak havoc (it already is). Weston offers ways of thinking about this, not denying there's going to be pain, but also encouraging us to adapt, accept, work with the change. He offers hope that future is not all gloom and doom.

I think I may write about this on my blog, so look for more about it there soon. In the meantime, don't despair! You're already doing good work in your own home. I think that's an important place to start. I'm thinking a lot about changes I can make at home as well as what I can do locally.

If I think about trying to change the world, I feel hopeless. If I think about getting the city of Durham, North Carolina, to plant gardens and beehives on top of its municipal buildings, well, that feels possible. What if everyone starting doing the possible?

Don't despair, Jo! Let's fight the good fight!


P.S. Posted the post. Hope it makes you feel a little better!
Anonymous said…
That's the problem with knowledge. You can't unknow. Can't take that image out of your head.

At least you are taking action. And inspiring others to take action.
Jo said…
Thankyou my dears - you are all so right. There are creative solutions all over the place for us to be part of, and bees on the town hall roof is an excellent place to start, Frances! And yes, apologies Lucinda. Once you know, you can't unknow. It's the paralysis that sets in between the knowing and the doing, and being able to move forward that is the space I am in at the moment..It's good to have encouraging folk about when you need them... thanks!
Judy said…
Thanks for that Jo. I looked around my home with a touch of despair afterwards. Removing plastic is a big task. It may help to break it down into feasible little steps. I can accept that the plastic in my home is already here and we are already exposed to it. So I am going to focus on stopping new plastic from coming in. Even that is tough because of all the food packaged in plastic.

I'm sure I can learn to live without a plastic bag lining my bin - I mean I don't use them for my recycling or my compost bin. Once I kick that habit plastic bags are gone....except for the ones that charities post through the letterbox for me to fill with donations of clothes. Hmm!
Anonymous said…
Depressing? Maybe. Sad? Definitely. Important to post none the less? No question!
It's a sobering realisation that even those of us that do make an effort to live a greener lifestyle are still leaving behind substantial footprints. Shy of trying to live lives like those from the early Victorian period I don't know what else to do. But it's a hugely long process to get to the point you can do that. We to are working on it. Our goat arrived yesterday and I can't wait until I can get her in kid to reduce our dairy footprint to nil. Until then I am learning all I can about cheese making and goat care. Our food forest garden will (when it reaches maturity) help provide food and herbal medicines to our family but still and all, I can't grow mangoes, peanuts or other foods we currently consider to be staples. What do we do? Ship them in with carbon mileage attached or go without? Crappy choice.
When I find myself falling victim to the peak oil despair I feel I often think about what a friend (Narf77) says and I try to turn that powerful depair into powerful motivation and drive. Not easy but then at least that emotive energy is turned to positive uses and not wasted.
Hang in there and turn that research to protecting your family, focussing on localising everything you can and continuing to share your journey as motivation and inspiration to others. :)
Jo said…
Judy - I still have plastic bags in my bin! A friend orders her groceries on the internet, and they deliver in plastic bags, and then she hands them on to me. Reorganising the bin and compost system is on my list. That long, long list! I do feel rather responsible for all these morbid facts I keep finding and passing on. I will try to find something positive to post about next!
Jo said…
Jessie, you are an inspiration with everything you are bravely having a go at. I will so look forward to reading about your adventures with a goat!
I hear you on turning despair into positive action. I am wallowing a little in the bad news now, but as
an optimistic person, I know I will go forwards again - I don't want to lose that sharp edge of urgency and sink back into complacency either. And the mangoes? I think sometimes we have to remember that mangoes (for you) and chocolate (for me) are actually luxuries, not staples. I don't think the global food system is hurt by shipping small numbers of 'occasional' luxuries about. It's when we demand them every day that it starts to cause huge problems. Maybe the solution is to decrease frequency by 90% as well. Then they will be absolute luxuries, looked forward to, consumed with avid pleasure, and never taken for granted..
Gosh. Jo. where to start. i shall start by checking out that website. gosh. but everything is packaged in plastic. shampoo. ladies' personal monthly doo-dads. rolled oats. how does one do it without becoming a fulltime shopper who finds oats in bulk or buys doo-dads that have to be washed and re-used?? does that become more important than convenience? the 10% comparisons are staggering. but then, it's the middle of a cold bleak Hobart winter and i don't want to give up my heating (i've lived in an unheated flat and it was not pleasant). am i being selfish?
too much information sends you round the bend. i have been grappling with giving up meat, which wasn't actually hard at all, but then if you apply it to animal friendly products such as toiletries and household cleaners, where does it end? i like the mascara i use, and the sugar soap to clean the floors, do i have to give those things up? when does one stop and when does one go crazy?
Jo said…
E, I think you have captured my state of mind very well. At the moment it's mostly questions, and some slight hysteria, not so much of the answers..
I'm with you on every question up there..

jo, sorry for not reading you lately. work has been hectic and last thing i want to do at night is look at a computer screen again. but i'm catching up on your adventures at the moment and i'm enjoying your thought provoking posts. does ther come a point in all our lives where we examnine what we do, how we choose to live? i think so.
hope you are keeping warm.
Jo said…
Who was it who said something about the unexamined life not being worth living? Someone who was tired of sitting on the couch reading trashy novels, that's who. Silly person.
Jen's Busy Days said…
What is the alternative to plastic though? I live in a 100 year old house with the old rubbish heap down the back and I can tell you that glass doesn't decompose either. My poor ol' chookies dig up a lot in their daily scratchings. I even found a whole bottle, from the company that made first made Fountain Tomato Sauce way back in the early 1900's.

I would be interested to know what the breakdown rate is for most of our packaging. It isn't enough to me to say plastic takes a ?? amount of time, if other things we use such as glass or steel are similar in time anyway. Although I do hear you on the chemicals leaching into our food bit, and will be looking a bit harder at how we store hot food here.

Best wishes
Jen in NSW
Jo said…
Hi Jen, good question. The difference is that glass is infinitely recyclable. If you don't want to save your lovely 100yr old glass sauce bottle (so much fun digging up bottles from the garden!), you could recycle it, and it could be done over and over. Plastic gets downcycled once, possibly twice. It can only be made into something less sturdy. Plastic bottles can be made into polar fleece, but polar fleece can't be recycled.
In the environment it will eventually break down, but won't biodegrade. Think about an old plastic peg in the weather. Over time it crumbles - but that is tiny, tiny pieces of plastic now absorbed into the earth, and nobody quite knows what effect that has on soil composition. Because it is such a new material, not a lot is known about its long term effects on soil microbes, plants etc.
And too much of it is doing damage in its original form for me to be happy about it. No albatross died from ingesting a 100yr old sauce bottle! (although I am sure there are plenty at the bottom of the ocean)(bottles, not albatrosses)

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