Thursday, May 09, 2019

Environmentalism When You Can't Be Perfect

If I had to pick one quote to capture my philosophy on life, it would be Voltaire's "le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," which translates literally to "the best is the enemy of the good" but often gets rendered as "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

I don't think perfect is possible, and so I apply this quote in all aspects of my life. Tonight I want to talk about applying this to my attempts to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

My feelings on individual action and climate change are complicated. On the one hand, I do not think that individual action is the solution to climate change. I think we need policy changes to reduce emissions on the scale we need to reduce them. On the other hand, many of those policy changes would be targeted at producing changes in individual choices (e.g., biking/taking transit instead of driving) and also individual choices can help build a culture in which policy changes are more possible...

So I have been trying to make better individual choices. Doing the research to decide what changes to make is disheartening, to say the least, because so much of what you find is often absolutist and full of judgement for people who cannot remake their lives to be perfectly pure in the environmental sense.

The purists annoy me, both because sanctimony is inherently annoying and because I think they scare people off from making any changes or even engaging with the issue at all. The whole reason we need policy change is that our society is set up in a way that makes it hard for people to make environmentally sustainable choices. Infrastructure in many cities is built around the car, companies have a vested interest in making it hard for us to evaluate their claims about sustainability, etc., etc.

Luckily, I have my whole "the perfect is the enemy of the good" philosophy to fall back on. I don't have to be perfect, I just have to do better. In my experience, that approach is far more conducive to actually changing things than the "be perfect or you're a hypocrite" approach. Start where you are and iterate to where you want to be by making the changes you can make now. You can always make more changes later.

So, leaving aside the whole "buying an electric car" thing (and yes, I still owe you a post with my thoughts on the Tesla), here are some small changes we've made recently:
  • I bought more reusable bags for produce and bulk goods (e.g., the pistachios and cashews I buy)
  • I try to choose walking for short trips like picking the kids up at school. Except for the first day we had the Tesla. That day, we picked the kids up from school in the car.
  • I am being more mindful about how I use plastic food storage bags. My first attempt to replace these with reusable bags failed. The bags I bought are useful, but do not replace Ziploc bags in my most common uses, which are to store the baked goods I make every week for my kids. However, since I make the same baked goods every week (scones for Pumpkin's lunches and bread for Petunia's breakfasts), I can reuse the Ziploc bags without washing them. I used to do that sometimes. Now I do it all the time.
  • Mr. Snarky bought a pump to power a sprinkler so that he can use the water from our rain barrels to water our backyard. We run our built in sprinklers less often now.
  • Mr. Snarky has started trying various meat substitutes for things like hamburgers. We've also tried meat substitute "meatballs" and found them pretty good.
Things I've considered and decided I won't do:
  • Bike or take transit to work one day a week. There is no safe bike route and a transit-based commute would be well over an hour.
  • Give up meat. We don't eat meat every day or even most days, but we aren't likely to give it up completely.
And here are some small things I'm planning to do next:
  • Start walking to get our groceries some times. This requires me to obtain a "granny cart" - and I think Petunia may be planning to get me one for my birthday, which is coming up soon, so I am waiting on this.
  • Solve the scone and bread storage issue in a way that doesn't involve Ziploc bags at all.  
  • Sign up for the free tree the city will plant to replace the one that blew over in a storm earlier this year.
Our next big thing will probably be solar panels, but it could also be the backyard revamp I've been wanting to do, which will reduce the amount of grass and also add at least one tree. 

And of course, I'll continue to work to elect politicians who will take climate change seriously. I'm also trying to be more vocal on local issues that are related to climate issues, like supporting better bike lanes and public transit, and increasing housing density near existing transit lines.

I'm always open to ideas for other small changes to add to my next iteration of improvements, so drop any ideas you have in the comments!


  1. Anonymous2:36 PM

    I totally agree that that an all-or-nothing approach to these issues is counterproductive (i.e., "zero waste" lifestyle). A couple of other things I've been working on:

    1) Try to buy more used clothing instead of new (I often use since I find in-person thrift stores overwhelming).

    2) Join (or start?) a local Buy Nothing group on Facebook. Buy Nothing Groups are a hyper-local gift economy - you can either gift something you no longer need/want to one of your neighbors or you can ask for something you need. I am a member of my local group and have been amazed by the generosity of members as well as by all of the many items gifted that would have otherwise been trashed. For example, I've been able to gift partially used face wash (that didn't agree with my skin), a broken solar fountain that someone thought they could fix, a sweater with a hole that someone wanted to darn, etc. I've also received everything from food items to kids' toys/clothes to plant clippings to a really nice backyard swing/seat! It can be a great resource and is a fabulous way to keep items out of landfills. (Can you tell I'm an evangelist?!) Here's a link to find your group:

  2. I'm trying not to think too hard about how much massive change has to happen to reverse the damage we've done to the planet, or the fact that it has to happen on a far grander scale than each one of us can effect individually. We're going to do our best to do our part and do as much as we can.

    Since buying used clothes doesn't work well for me, I instead choose to buy much less and wear those things I do buy until they can't be worn any longer. I try to extend the lifespan of all my clothes to be 10 years or more, minimum, instead of a few seasons.

    We do the same for most everything else that we own: reuse our Ziplocs until they fall apart, for example. We also find new homes for things we aren't going to use (donating or regifting) and try to recycle everything that's been used beyond repair or reuse.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.