How To Save the Planet (And Still Use a Plastic Straw)

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S1: What if we lived in a world where all the disposable diapers you could buy on the shelves were compostable. And there was a service that came and picked them all up and composted them for you. And that was the cheapest way to do it. Why don’t we just demand that instead of torturing ourselves individually?

S2: This is how to I’m Charles do it. This week marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which actually seems kind of appropriate because while the pandemic is taking this devastating toll on human lives and the economy, there’s been at least one kind of silver lining in the past few weeks. The Earth has gotten a bit of a break from our usual output of carbon emissions and pollution. You might have seen those photos from Los Angeles of pristine blue skies where usually there’s just smog or northern India, where for the first time in decades, people can actually see the snow capped peaks of the Himalayan mountains more than 100 miles away.


S3: Our listener this week, he would appreciate that.

S4: My wife and I, we go hiking all the time. We actually try to visit as many state and national parks as possible. And then when we went on our honeymoon, we went out to Colorado and literally just hiked every single day that we are out there.

S3: This is Caleb, who lives in Madinah, Ohio, about 40 miles south of Cleveland. Like most of us, he’s currently sheltering at home right now with his wife and his two kids, which for him includes a newborn baby. And even before this pandemic started, Caleb was worried about another kind of global threat, climate change.


S4: Every chatty just to see how he can basically make a more practical way of saving the planet. You know, where’s our biggest bang for our buck and why is that a big deal to you?


S3: Like what? Why is this something that you think about?

S4: I mean, honestly, I want to leave the world a better place. And I know that a lot of people just talk and don’t necessarily do anything about it.

S3: And so let me ask you. So do you recycle yourself? I do, yes. Do you compost?

S5: I don’t compost. I used to. And then that was one of those things where the effort that I was taking, I just wasn’t necessarily seeing the value in me doing that. Guess I have a hybrid or electric car, so we don’t have a hybrid. We just bought a minivan with the expansion of our family.


S4: And I actually live close enough to work where either Walker bike to work every day.

S3: OK. And what about with the baby? Like are using disposable diapers or cloth diapers so that we are using disposable diapers, which I did to fill you at your cat is a get with this like guilty tone in your voice. But soda. So did I. Right. Like, I know that, like, disposable diapers are less environmentally healthy than cloth diapers, but there’s so much more convenient. Right.

S6: I don’t know about you, but this is something that increasingly weighs on my mind as the planet continues to heat up. How do we do the right thing while still enjoying all that modern life offers us? We’ll talk with an environmental expert who has a bunch of good ideas for what we can do as individuals and more importantly, collectively, to help save the planet. Even if you have to drive a minivan. More after this quick break.


S3: To help Caleb figure out the best way to combat climate change. We reached out to the science writer Emma Miras, who lives in rural Oregon.

S7: So I spend my day reading and writing about environmental changes and thinking about how to make the world a better place to live in. And I do that mostly from a shed in my backyard. So my commute is pretty green. Honestly, I don’t live a hermit like it life. I you know, I. I actually travel probably more than the average American because I give talks as part of my job. So I’m on planes and I have lots of feelings about that. But it’s part of how I make my living.


S3: You know, as an expert, how dire are things right now?

S1: It’s bad. Yeah. So there are some climate change that has clearly already happened. The fires in Australia are a great example of that fires here in the West Coast. So it depends a lot on on what we do now and in the next couple of decades how bad things are gonna get. But it could be if we do everything wrong, quite bad. There could be a lot of extinctions. There could be a lot fewer plants and animals for our children and grandchildren to enjoy. And things could change pretty radically in ways that basically make mostly the earth’s poorest more miserable.


S3: And so let me ask you. So, OK, so do you recycle?

S1: Sure. Yeah. I recycle.

S3: OK. And do you compost?

S1: I do compost. I am not a great compost. Her my compost right now smells terrible. And I know that I need to cope with it, but I do compost as I get it.


S3: Let’s see, do you do you drive like a hybrid or an electric car?

S1: No, I don’t, because my cars. I have two cars. Once a 1983 Volvo and one to two thousand Subaru. And the next car will definitely be electric or hybrid. But I haven’t had the cash to sort of upgrade to the hybrid yet.


S3: Neither have I. And what about did you use cloth diapers or do so?

S7: I tried with the first one. I did a lot of cloth diapering. But then and I think this is actually a great example. So at the time I was living in central Missouri. And so I was using cloth diapers because I thought that’s what I should do as a good environmentalist. And then I started to really worry about the amount of energy I was spending, washing and drying these diapers over and over again because I wasn’t sure. But I thought that a lot of the energy at my address was probably coming from coal and other fossil fuels. So then I started trying to hang out the diapers to dry. And I was spending hours and hours every week hanging out diapers and bringing diapers back in. And when you sit down and actually do the math about how much emissions I was individually saving by doing that, it was pretty tiny. Yeah. And that was part of my process of beginning to think, are these individual lifestyle things what I should really be focusing my energy on, or is there a smarter way to reduce emissions in a bigger way rather than spending hours of my day doing this hand laundry?


S3: And so Emma started researching this. Looking at what really matters when it comes to actually helping the Earth.


S7: So it took me a while to get to this point, but I think that I can pretty confidently say that the secret to being effective on climate change is to stop focusing on yourself. Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. And I think I think that this focus on lifestyle choices is really kind of a trap. And in fact, it’s a trap that is that is gleefully supported by the fossil fuel industry.

S1: It was it was British Petroleum who first popularized the individual carbon footprint calculator, because it really puts all of the burden and the guilt about solving climate change on the individual consumers shoulders. But as you just pointed out, doing that within our current system is extremely time consuming or expensive or both. And if we don’t do those things, we feel super guilty, like we’ve we’ve failed the planet. And, you know, we’re going to eco hell.


S7: But the alternative is to demand big changes in the systems in which we live so that the cheapest, easiest option is the greenest option.

S8: This is our first rule. You should not feel guilty about not being green enough unsustainable food and clothes and all that stuff you buy on Amazon. It’s usually cheaper than the sustainable alternatives. Then feeling shame over buying those things that stops you from doing what’s much more important, which is pushing for policy changes and and pushing for powerful companies to to change how they do business. Because that’s the biggest problem that needs solving right then.

S3: And it seems like in some ways we’ve been moving toward that, right? They like under Obama. There was this push to greater fuel efficiency standards, which. Right. My understanding is, is it was trying to accomplish exactly that. To say, look, we’re we’re just not gonna let you buy cars anymore, that they put out so many emissions. They have to they have to use less less fuel. Is that right?


S7: Right. And those those fuel economy standards reduced emissions massively more than either an individual person could do by buying an electric car or that even even huge numbers of people could do it by buying electric cars. There are 7 billion people on the planet. That is an enormous number. It’s it’s the number is so big. It’s hard to wrap your brain around. So the idea of working on just your one seventh billionth of the problem is a dead end. We’ve got to change these big systems that affect millions of people at a time.

S8: For Emma, the realization that focusing on herself was the wrong thing. It came about a decade ago when she was shopping online for an eco friendly purse.

S9: And so I started reading articles about eco friendly purse manufacturers. And in the end, after, I don’t know, five, five hours of research, 10 hours of research, I ended up buying this purse that was made out of a recycled leather jacket, which was awesome. It was a really cool purse. But as I sat there after I hit by on my computer, I thought, what if I had taken that 10 hours that I just spent on this single purchase? And what if I had gone to the city council meeting and said, yes, let’s have more bike lanes in the city? Or what if I had spent that time to join a group that was fighting for better fossil fuel standards or tougher restrictions on the garment industry? And what if we had succeed, made some gains and some successes?

S1: As a group, I would have been able to stop vastly more emissions. Yeah. So I think part of it is really in a way stems from the fact that, you know, I was trying to not feel guilty.


S3: Q Do you ever feel like guilt?

S4: Yeah, actually I feel really encouraged by what Emily’s just saying there.

S3: When do you feel guilty? Like, what’s the thing that happens, you know, weekly where you think to yourself, Oh man, I’m a bad person and I’m hurting the earth?

S4: You know, I really don’t. I wouldn’t say it’s ever that extreme just because for the most part, I do try to live as much of a minimalist lifestyle as I can. But yeah, like when we when we bought the minivan, we did buy used. But still that was probably the biggest pill to swallow.

S3: Yeah. You know, and I feel the same way like when you know, when when I go to the grocery store, which is obviously less now. But but even now, you know, I try and bring my reusable grocery bags. But then like 30 percent of the time, I totally forget. And then they like say like, did you bring your bag? And I say, no. And then they say, okay, we have to charge you, you know, the three cents for it, for the plastic bags that we’re gonna give you. And secretly, I’m like, oh, thank goodness, more plastic bags, because I always need more plastic bags. And I feel terrible. Emma, how? How? Yeah. Guilty. Should Caitlin and I feel okay?

S7: Not guilty. You should not feel guilty because here’s the thing. Our government has decided that they’re gonna put in place policies and incentives. You know, they’re gonna they’re gonna to have tax breaks for the auto manufacturers and so on that have set up this market situation that you find yourself in. And that’s not the only way. Norway, for example, has a massive incentive program on electric cars. You get so much money back on your taxes that it is frankly cheaper to buy a brand new electric car than it is to buy a standard car. And as a result, a huge number of the cars on the street in Norway are electric. So is it because Norwegians are more virtuous? No, it’s because their government and their you know, the people they’ve elected have decided to prioritize this.


S9: And so they have made it easier and cheaper to do the green thing. And we can do this, too, if we demand it.

S8: So here’s the next rule. Focus on systems, not just your individual choices. If you want to make real change. Recycling is great, but it’s much more important to elect political leaders who understand that climate change will only really be solved through action on a much larger scale.

S3: OK. So. So what you’re saying then, does that mean that I can just like kick up my heels, use as many plastic bags as I want, throw cans in the trash and then just like, you know, every four years or so, I promise I’m going to vote for whoever is like a little bit green. No. Is that it?

S1: You’re not off the hook that easily. OK. I mean, I. I do want to emphasize that that individual stuff is not totally wasted energy and time. So, yes. Choosing the green option when you can. And when it doesn’t like put a lot of stress and strain on your family is is the right thing to do. And I do not myself when I can. And it also comes with extra bonus rewards, like, for example, Caleb walking to work every day is almost certainly making him healthier. But I’m saying take the hours that you spend now feeling guilty and re-allocate them to collective action.

S8: This collective action is the key to making a real difference. And when we come back, Emma will tell us exactly what we ought to do. Like what groups we should join and how we pick them and how we should think through this really hard question. Stay with us.


S6: If you like listening to shows about climate change, you should definitely check out the Derailed podcast. Climate change, of course, doesn’t stop.

S10: Just because we have another disaster to think about and drilled is tracking how industries right now might be using the coronavirus crisis to slip through. Industry friendly policies in their current season. They’ve looked at the Mad Men of climate denial and how they’ve shaped the climate debate here and around the world. That’s the drill podcast, which you can download wherever you listen.

S3: We’re back with Caleb in our expert Amyris and also Laura Ingram from Fox News.

S11: Okay. Morning. Here it is. OK. The ultimate trigger sculpture kind of culinary sculpture. It has everything the Democrats hate steak, plastic straws and light bulbs.

S1: And if I could have put an SUV on this, I would have.

S3: One of the biggest challenges right now in tackling climate change is that it’s become so polarizing. I kind of signal of identity politics. Emma, what do we knew about that? Because I I think that when there’s people who say I want to learn about the environment, that that’s easy to sort of talk to them and find fellow travelers. But when we’re talking to folks who say, oh, man, this is some more of that, like liberal nonsense that I hear about all the time. How do we how do we start those conversations in a way that adds to the solutions rather than just exacerbating divides?

S1: Right. So I live in a conservative community myself. I live in a county that overwhelmingly is Republican. And when I had solar panels put on my house, which is one of those individual things that I decide to do. The guy, my friend Eric, who put the panels on was talking to me and he said that about half of his customers are liberal environmentalists, but the other half are conservative families who want to have some kind of independence from the electricity grid. And so there’s a lot of other benefits to some of these green policies that really do appeal to a more conservative voting base. Things like just saving money, being thrifty. Yeah. Also, when it comes to public lands and parks, that’s a really bipartisan issue. And working across those lines can be tricky, but it can also be really rewarding.


S6: And this leads us to the next room, something Emma alluded to earlier. The most powerful thing you can do to save the planet is to team up with other people and join effective groups to push for policy changes that you believe in.

S12: Let me ask Caleb. Do you belong to any groups? No, honestly, I never even thought of it. If I give to certain groups, but I’m not actually a part of any group, especially one that is focused on changing policies.

S1: So this is gonna be a very personal decision. Do you love biking and bike infrastructure and do you want to get involved with a group that does that or are you really interested in electricity generation and and that kind of thing? Or are you super passionate about saving species? So this is where you used to get on the Internet and do your research, not to figure out the best recycled purse, but to figure out the best group to join in.

S3: One of the best things you can do, says Emma, is to find a local group because national organizations, they’re focused on national topics, but they’re not focused on your backyard, not the way you can be.

S1: The groups that I sort of threw my lot in with really focuses on things like stopping a particular fossil fuel project that’s proposed for our area and also helping low income people get solar panels on their roof and heat pumps. And I’ve also met all these wonderful people and I’ve created all these really strong relationships that are now in an important part of my life.

S3: Q What do you think about that? Is that a possibility for you?

S4: Yeah, I think so. I think that not only would the benefit be of making a greater impact, but just like I said, you know, you’re meeting all of these great people, like minded people. So I don’t see any downside to that.


S1: Well, I’ll just add to that. One other advantage of joining a group is that you don’t have to know everything or have all the answers. We can just bring what we’re really good at. Whether that’s accounting or writing or talking in the media or even just bringing the bringing the food and watching the kids and then the other people, we’ll figure out the parts that we’re not good at. It’s all about divide and conquer. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the complexities of this extremely wicked problem. And that’s why we all need to do a division of labor and collective action. That’s the only thing that’s going to get it done.

S2: Here’s another rule if you’re a writer. Write letters to the editor or help with a group newsletter. If you’re big and burly, you can lift boxes. If you’re rich, you can donate money sets, sustainable levels of involvement for yourself and then lean into your strengths.

S3: Let me ask you, Caleb, what’s the cause for the group that you think would really feel inspiring to you?

S4: I would say probably some sort of conservation, whether it’s state parks, national parks, different things like that.

S1: It’s a great that’s a great focus. So one thing to keep in mind is, first of all, there may be some awesome groups or associations in your own town that you can get involved with. But if not, and if there’s a group that speaks to you in Cleveland, then I hereby give you permission to drive your fossil fuel car to Cleveland to participate in this group, because ultimately the rewards will more than offset the emissions associated with going to Cleveland. Awesome. Thanks, Emma.


S3: And then, look, can you give us an example, because I think that one of the things that that oftentimes stops people from doing something like this is that we think, oh, this local group, like what is a local group ever done to make a difference? And like a big issue like this, like, is there examples of local groups that have actually had a huge impact?

S1: Oh, yeah. I mean, if you join a really small group, you might not change fossil fuel policy for the entire United States, but you might get like a cool bike lane put in your city that really encourages a lot more people to take that option to commute. So this pipeline that we’re fighting in our group, you know, if if it were to be built, it would it would pump out like almost 40 million tons of of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. And there’s probably between a couple hundred and a thousand people who are actively working to fight it. And I think we’re winning. Honestly, I think we’re going to succeed and we’re gonna stop it. It’s just been denied a bunch of permits that it needs, in part because of public pressure.

S3: Like if somebody came to you and said and would just give me like five easy things to do that you think is going to have an impact on the environment. What would you tell them to do?

S1: I’d say no one. Collective action. Number two, collective action. Number three, collective action. Number four, eat a little bit less beef. And number five, don’t fly if you don’t have to.

S3: It’s interesting that you mentioned eating less red meat. Tell me about that. Like why? Why would that be an issue that should be foremost in people’s minds?


S1: So meat production is just high intensity in terms of carbon equivalent emissions. A lot of it is methane emissions, but also in terms of land use and water use as compared to plant food. I’ve read millions of studies on this and beef always comes out, as, you know, the highest impact food that you could possibly eat. If you compare having being taco’s to beef tacos, the beef is going to just have vastly higher emissions.

S3: Q Are you a big mediator?

S4: I am a big meat eater. I wouldn’t say a big beef eater necessarily. I do have beef maybe a couple times a week though.

S1: So if you have it twice a week and you switch to having it once a week, that could be one of the bigger impact things you could do. Honestly, I don’t think you’ll really notice a major change. It doesn’t require more money or requires less money actually to make that switch.

S3: What about like, you know, I think that there’s been a lot of media coverage of like straws. Right now, I can’t get a plastic straw. Every time I go in some place, they give me a paper strop. Like, are those are those good shifts for me to make the straw?

S1: Things like drives me bonkers. Frankly, it just seems like such a red herring. Like here there are always companies out there that are every day going and digging up huge quantities of fossil fuel and burning it and just throwing that those emissions into the air. And we’re supposed to all feel like assholes for for having straws. Like what if that’s bonkers?

S2: This brings us to our last. Know what you are fighting for, not just what you’re fighting against. Our goal is to create a realistically good future to help the planet heal from the damage that’s been done, but also to live this life that we actually enjoy living when we’re we’re not paranoid because we have to get a plastic bag at the grocery store.


S1: So I’m imagining a world where we have sort of big active climate change research centers all around the world in the hardest hit communities. And we have cities that are sort of dense but green and livable. We have really good public transit and the skies are clearer and fewer children die of asthma and other pollution related diseases.

S3: So let me ask, you know, if we’re having this conversation during the time of the pandemic and in when, you know, emissions are way down, when in fact, some people have said that, you know, one of the things that the pandemic has shown is that we can’t actually change how we behave very quickly. Right. This is a terrible time and there’s a terrible human and economic toll from this. But are there lessons you think that we can take from this thing that we’re living through that teaches us something about how to fight climate change and how to how we ought to behave going forward?

S1: Yes. I mean, obviously, as you said, this is not something that we would have signed up for in order to learn lessons, but it shows that we can do this for climate change to climate change also threatens vulnerable people. It also threatens people that we care about. And we can make it happen. We can make these changes also unlike the pandemic. We can do so in a thoughtful, rolled out way, which won’t be a big economic hit. You know, some of the proposals behind of proposed policies like the Green New Deal couple these changes with actual job creation and things that boost the economy so that you end up with big societal changes, plus an economic boom. I think that’s absolutely possible.


S13: Yeah. This has been really helpful, actually. It’s been very encouraging and enlightening just to know that not everything is on my shoulders. I don’t have to feel like I have to do everything perfectly.

S3: So let me ask you, so you know, you’re at home right now. You’ve got some time on your hands, although you do have a new baby once once the baby’s heart sleeping through the night. What do you think you’re going to do differently?

S13: Actually, the first thing I’m going to do is start looking up local groups. So something that’s definitely important to me, as I mentioned, conservation is different, things like that. Then I can really focus on, OK, how can I best contribute to the group and whether it’s doing something small, you know, just volunteering on weekends or whatnot, or if, you know, I feel a calling to do something larger, I think that that would be the first step.

S9: Oh, my God. I love it so much. Like hearing you say that. Like, I swear I’m starting to tear up a little bit because that is the way. Like we can do this if we if if everybody just pulls together, we can do it.

S10: Thank you to Caleb for reaching out to us with this great question and to Emma Maris for all of her fantastic advice. You should be sure to look up her writings in places like National Geographic and pick up her book, Rambunctious Garden Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. And we have a quick update from Caleb who sent us this voicemail.

S14: Hey, Charles and the team. This is Caleb just giving you a quick update. So I have reached out to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and I will be joining our local chapter once the stay at home orders are lifted. And I’m really excited to get started with them. Thanks. Have a great day. Bye.


S10: Do you have a problem that needs solving? If so, you should send us a note at how to at Slate dot coms that we can help and remember to send us your questions about life under quarantine. And your solutions if you figured out something that is working pretty well. Call and leave us a voicemail at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 0 0 1. Finally, we are hoping to help as many people as we can right now. So if you have a moment and hopefully if you’re at home, you do please give us a rating and a review and tell your friends about the show. It really helps other people find us how TOS executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is our production assistant in Merrick. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Janice Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Asha Soldier and Sung Park. I’m Charles Du. Stay Green. And thanks for listening.