I love gold stars. Shiny bits of foil stuck on notebooks and papers. Glittery reminders that I made the right choice, that I did a good thing, that I got an A+. Like acing a spelling a test, I like to know that I’ve gotten everything right when it comes to my consumer choices. That I’ve chosen the very best, the least damaging, the most sustainable option available for my family.
Of course, making environmentally responsible choices isn’t nearly as cut and dried as memorizing by rote the correct order of letters in a word. There’s rarely one simple answer. And wanting a gold star isn’t probably the most ecologically sound thing to yearn for, anyway. (All of that foil that can’t be recycled or composted is edging out space that should be available for insects or earth worms.) But stickers aside, human beings are messing up the planet, daily making this place we call home less hospitable to ourselves and other living things. Gold star consumer habits alone won’t change that.
Still, it’s no surprise that in our attempts to live more lightly on the planet, we often turn inward and scrutinize our individual habits and consumer choices. In a moment when it feels like regulatory bodies aren’t doing nearly enough work to mitigate the effects of climate change on a global scale, it gives me a sense of agency and purpose to think about my personal acts of stewardship and my personal consumption as protective measures against a warming planet. Saying no to a plastic bag, or composting my food scraps, or buying a product made from recycled materials, are all things that make me feel better, and scaled across households, I think that these kinds of small individual efforts can indeed make a significant contribution.
But increasingly, when it comes to the environment (or spelling for that matter), I’m not convinced that chasing gold stars is serving us very well. Do even the smallest bit of research and it’s easy to see how a single product or habit can have both positive and negative impacts on the planet or on ourselves. On one hand you have something that’s biodegradable and recyclable and produced in a closed loop, but the raw materials wreak havoc on our topsoil. On the other, something that uses next to no water, but that contaminates water supply with toxic runoff. The average consumer, myself included, has relatively limited understanding and limited access to information about how even our most-used products are produced, to say nothing of the impact of that production. This doesn’t mean that we can’t make informed decisions, or that there aren’t some choices that are demonstrably or measurably better than others, but it does mean that there’s not always one perfect habit or one perfect choice. This isn’t a test that requires memorization of the right answer, it’s a test that requires critical thinking and an open mind.
In the face of it, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or cynical. I don’t think we need to throw up our hands and declare the whole project useless, but I do think it’s helpful to know that in seeking sustainability, we’re not always going to get it right. It’s wise to acknowledge that the least detrimental form of consumption is to abstain from consuming altogether, but that abstinence isn’t always possible (and not always pleasurable). I guess most of all, I’m hoping to remember that ultimately we’re in it together. Trying to accumulate gold stars for myself can’t be the strategy when the end goal is a planet that’s still habitable for future generations. It’s collaboration and not competition that will forge a path toward a greener planet. I’m not interested in grandstanding, I’m interested in putting my head down, hopefully with a whole bunch other people, so we can find solutions. When we’re given a test without an answer key, I think the only thing to do is to make one for ourselves, which will mean making mistakes, and learning new things, and changing our minds. Over and over again.