With the release of the IPCC report and the Nobel-adjacent prize in economics going to a green growth economist, its been a regular-style dark month for ecological economists. The IPCC report was not nearly as annoying as the Nobel-ish prize, mostly because what was in the IPCC report is not a surprise to people who have been paying attention to climate issues for the last 5/10/20+ years, and yes, I know it sounds like I’m saying I knew the band before they got famous, which I kind of am. But also, to all the people who just found out about the seriousness of climate change, welcome. There is a place for you, and also, you will need to sort out your self-care plan, because this is gonna be a long journey.
I am an ecological economist. This means I spend a lot of time diving deep into the ways in which climate change, environmental damage, and social inequality (to name a few choice concerns) originate from, are reproduced by, and cannot be solved without fundamentally changing the way ‘the economy’ is understood and incorporated into policy-making. I will go more into this in another blog post (because I can talk about ecological economics for endless amounts of time). While this is the most exciting and inspiring research I know of, it is also equal parts depressing and infuriating.
When I first arrived at McGill, I was heartened to have one of the program leaders remind us to be gentle with ourselves and take time to keep our spirits up, as it is not often in academia that the emotional impact of difficult subject matter on students and researchers is acknowledged. In my masters thesis, I made jokes about how the ethics review failed to ask about the ways in which the students’ lives would be more stressful in the process of research. I mean, how many ways can you discover new power structures resisting climate/inequality/environmental solutions before you are drained and numb? (a lot, turns out)
So last week, in a flourish of frustration, my flatmates and I decided to go plastic free.
Full disclosure- it is not truly plastic free, because we all live in a new town (St. Anne de Bellevue), and we don’t know how to meet all our needs without plastic coming into the flat. So our version of ‘plastic free’ is that we don’t send any plastic into the garbage. At all. The way we are doing this is by setting a big bin on top of the fridge where our non-recyclable plastic will go. When it is full, we will wash it with soap, put on some subversive podcasts, and cut the plastic into small pieces. Once the plastic is cut up, we will stuff it into plastic bottles (which we will dig out of the public recycling), until it is heavy and full, and then we will set it aside. These bottles filled with plastic are called eco-bricks, and you can build stuff out of them, like a shed, or a bench or a house. Here is a place to learn more about them: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/29/ecobricks-and-education-how-plastic-bottle-rubbish-is-helping-build-schools . Some people are even using eco-bricks as a currency for second hand items in order to collect enough eco-bricks to build larger community structures. They are dense, strong, and will last forever.
I didn’t think of it as self-care at the time, but I certainly do now. Even though I find the focus on individual consumer behaviour to be a red herring in the fight against climate change, I still feel like a failure any time a single-use cup ends up in my hand. I don’t consider my personal choices to not eat factory meat, eggs, or dairy (or to purchase only fair trade new, or secondhand clothing) to be an effective tool against a system of production that is barely related to consumer demand (more on this another time). The reason I do these things, and the reason they are meaningful to me is that they are a form of self-care.
The recent changes in worldwide recycling protocols have been confusing for many people, and having to throw away plastic made me feel like a participant in a process I had little power to resist, let alone consent to. So the delight of NOT putting plastic into the garbage is the smallest, most ridiculous act of rebellion. Each piece of plastic in the cut-up bin is a triumphant symbolic shaken fist that says, take that, system-I-don’t-agree-with-but-am-forced-to-participate-in!
I will KEEP this plastic! I will make it into something that is not garbage. I will build a root cellar, or a tiny home, or donate it to a community building project, and in 200 years, when the tiny home falls apart, they can be used again to make a garden bench, or an intergalactic landing pad (or a bunker- I don’t know what the future will be like).
So while we try to limit the plastic that comes in, we know that at least none of the plastic we do use will end up in a landfill*. And so far so good! Almost 100% of our outflow is compost or recycling (mostly paper and metal), and the garbage bin hasn’t increased in volume at all in the week that we’ve been plastic free.
And….. Now I can go back to deconstructing green growth and neoliberal hegemony in peace.
*I realize that some of you are thinking I must not realize that a lot of recycling ends up in landfills anyways. I do. Relax. There is good news. You can even make recyclable plastic into eco-bricks! Maybe we’ll put all the plastic in the flat into the cut-up bin. It is a work in process.
Banner image by Shaun Sellers.