I remember the moment that it struck me how my actions as an individual could contribute to the benefit or detriment of the environment. I was on the Great Victorian Bike Ride in 2006 (an annual bike ride where 3000-5000 people ride around the state for 9 days). It was a year where Victoria was in drought. We usually have at least one “rain day” on the rides (the previous year I almost got hypothermia riding in the rain), but that year there was nothing but the strong Australian sun, 35 degree Celsius heat and stretches of brown plains for all the 9 days.
The organisers totally didn’t plan for the extreme heat (to be fair you really cannot predict the weather in Victoria), and there weren’t enough rest stops and water refill stations for such conditions. Parched riders were finishing up their water bottles long before the next stop. I remember my group having to stop along the road and walk to a little farm we spotted in the distance to ask the people living there for water. The effects of the drought was confronting in the lack of green in the nature all around us as we rode around the state. Everything was dry. And brown. And more dried brown.
On one of the days, we camped in a little town of a few hundred people and there was a sign in the shower trucks asking us to take as quick a shower as we could because the town literally barely had enough water to last the week. I suddenly realised what a precious commodity water was and how much I had taken for granted the water coming out of my taps. How privileged are we just to have such easy access to clean water? Here I was living in the exact same state as these dried up country towns but because I was in the city, I could ignore reality and not see the effects of the drought.
We now live in a world where most people are only concerned about themselves and their own lives. We no longer live in communities. You take out the rubbish from your own household every few days and then the council comes each week and takes it all away. Out of sight, out of mind. It goes to rubbish heaven. We fail to see the accumulative effect of how much waste we’re actually tossing out, or how much food we consume as a collective, or how much water we’re really using or wasting…over the course of time and as a community.
There is nothing like 3000 or so people camping together to see the effects you have as a group. I found myself noticing things I didn’t usually notice in my daily life- how many bins all around were being filled with rubbish so quickly. How much water we were using in the showers and toilets or the to wash our plates and cutlery. How much food it took to fuel 3000 riders over 9 days. You’re not just one person living in the world, consuming things and creating rubbish. You are part of a literal sea of people.
If you throw a bag of rubbish every 2 days, imagine having all the bags of rubbish you would throw out in a year all in the same room. If you could see that in real life, it would be extremely confronting. But because you can’t see it, you ignore it. Now imagine how many people live in your house, your apartment building, your city, your country, the world…forever not breaking down.
After coming back from the bike ride that year, I started trying to be more environmentally conscious. I tried eating less meat and cooking vegetarian meals. When KeepCups first came out (reusable coffee cups in barista standard sizes) in 2009, I bought one straight away. When we moved to the suburbs, I started composting.
But time and time again, these spurts of enthusiasm only lasted a short while. The lack of social support was difficult. When I lived with my brother, he didn’t appreciate the lack of meat in the meals I was cooking for him. “Tell me when you’re cooking vegetarian for dinner,” he would sigh. “And I’ll make sure to eat meat for lunch”. Nothing like passive aggressive I’m-agreeing-to-this-but-I-don’t-really kind of support.
I would say with determination “I’m going to cut out meat for real this time!”…and just find myself going back to my meat ways after a few weeks. Twelve years ago, the vegetarian/vegan scene in Melbourne was vastly different to what it is now. There weren’t as many options in supermarkets and cafes. No one in my close social group were vegetarian and it was hard to refrain from meat in social outings and gatherings. I also needed to cook for other people living with me who were meat eaters. It was just inconvenient. And then came the problem that I actually did like meat…and dairy…and eggs.
I tried my hand in composting using a Bokashi bin for a few months…then got tired of needing to bury it in the garden. When we moved to an apartment in the city, there was the problem that we didn’t have anywhere to bury the compost. Friends who did have gardens had nicely manicured ones and asking them to find a place to bury our stinky compost became a hassle.
As the years ticked on, my environmental efforts became mainly limited to just putting the standard paper, plastic and aluminium into the council recycling bin at home. I had my kids and I used cloth nappies and reusable nursing pads for a while, but beyond that, I didn’t have any energy to think about doing any more. I buried my old passions in my mind. Having young kids just became about the most basic survival. The only goal in life was to still be alive and standing at the end of each day,
But then…as I ignored the world around me…something happened. Melbourne changed. We suddenly became hippy capital of the world. Our vegan scene exploded. Suddenly, there were vegan cafes everywhere. Most restaurants now offer lots of vegan and vegetarian options on their menu. Even Hungry Jack’s (Australia’s Burger King) has now come out with a vegan burger, complete with vegan mayonnaise. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re eating vegan food because it tastes so good.
Nearly all cafes now offer soy or almond milk as an alternative to cows’ milk in coffee. They encourage you to bring your own cup and give you a discount for it. The vegetarian aisle in my local supermarket suddenly became huge. I no longer had to go to an Asian grocery to hunt out tofu or Asian soy milk- it was all there in the Australian chain…every kind of tofu imaginable (plain, soft, silken, firm, marinated in all kinds of sauces etc)…along with tempeh, falafels, veggie burgers, veggie koftas, veggie sausages, vegan cheese, soy or coconut yoghurt, soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and a whole lot of dairy-free ice cream options.
Social awareness was growing. This year the major supermarkets banned single-use plastic bags due to social pressure and everyone now has to bring their own reusable bags to go grocery shopping. I learned that giving up meat was as much about the environment as it was ethical reasons. Meat requires a ridiculous amount of water and land to produce, and contributes to pollution. If we just cut out the animals and consume the food that goes to these animals, we could solve world hunger.
A couple years ago, some of our close friends became vegan. And then…my husband himself decided to get onboard the vegan train after watching videos of botched abattoir killings in Australia. To say I was surprised was an understatement. I thought this environmental thing was hard to do because of the lack of social support but suddenly there were no more excuses left. Melbourne is brimming with great vegetarian/vegan options, the closest person in my life was cutting out meat and animal products…and yet…here I was actually feeling slightly resentful over everything. What was going on??? Why was I feeling this way?
See, my husband is an all in or all out kind of person. He’s hot or cold. So he suddenly just went from “we’ll just cut down on meat here and there and do what we can” to suddenly going mostly vegan. He always orders soy with his coffee. If he’s out and I ask him to get a coffee for me to take home, he’ll say no if he doesn’t have a reusable cup on him. He goes to bulk food stores with his reusable containers. He feeds the kids vegan food.
So lukewarm me was suddenly like those insecure kids in the school hallway pretending to be cool rolling their eyes at the popular kids going “ugh”…even though I secretly wanted to be like them. It was irrational. It was for reasons born out of my own self-judgement and insecurities, not that my husband actually judged me in any way. His glowing actions only highlighted the fact that I felt guilty that I had been ignoring the environmental issues around me for the last few years and just putting in an half-arse, lukewarm attempt. How is he excelling at this more than I ever had?
I reacted in defensiveness. The little voice inside my head was screaming Hey I was the one who cared FIRST! You didn’t do any of this when I was trying to do it 10 years ago. Don’t you be waving your fancy reusable cups in my face. I bought a KeepCup when it FIRST came out okay! The environmental cause train was right before me, filled with supportive people and an amazing environment, but I was suddenly feeling like a strange urge to play some funny power game for me to try to retain some sense of self worth that I seemed to have lost in the process of motherhood. Hah now you want me to come onboard your cool train? Well guess what I’m not getting on!
The truth is that being an environmentalist is inconvenient. It is hard. It requires you to remember to always to bring your reusable cup, bags, containers etc. It requires you to be conscious about what you’re buying and ordering. It means troubling others asking for the vegetarian option, saying no you can’t go to that restaurant, having to refrain from buying things you don’t really need or because it’s packaged in a whole lot of plastic, and feeling bad for refusing things that others offer. It means taking your own rubbish home with you when there aren’t appropriate bins to put recycling in. It means going out of your way to drop off soft plastics at appropriate recycling bins or compost at community gardens in the suburbs if, like us, you live in a city apartment; or to go to an ethical bulk food store located much further than your local supermarket. As a particular famous amphibian once said- it’s not easy being green.
While I do love vegetarian food, I’ve also found it really hard to actually give up some really specific meals associated with emotional comfort- mainly a good chicken schnitzel wrap and raw salmon in sushi and poke bowls. The thought of being denied something forever is hard for me.
So I admit it. I’m chicken. I’m a quitter. I don’t like it when things get hard. I don’t like inconvenience. I especially don’t like inconvenience now when I’m inconvenienced all day by two little ones. I can’t stick to my beliefs enough to stand up to people or resist social pressure. I post my environmental efforts on social media but I’m no angel at consistency. If I were a celebrity, the tabloids would have a field day taking photos of me eating meat, using single-use disposable coffee cups, and tossing plastic into rubbish instead of recycling because I can’t be bothered to take it home.
But this is the thing about doing the right thing. Just like every bit of waste counts towards the detriment of the environment, every good action contributes to its benefit. It’s an accumulative effect. There are 7 billion people in this world, the majority meat eaters. If everyone gives up just one meat dinner a week, that’s a whole lot of meat saved. If everyone stops using plastic straws, it’s truck loads. So don’t you dare think that what you’re doing doesn’t matter.
While I respect the vegans who hold up protest signs outside meat restaurants and try to make people go completely vegan, I think it’s more realistic to encourage people to just give up a little because everyone is capable of doing a little and a little is a lot when put together. I think when you preach total abstinence, it makes people rebel and just want to do the opposite. I totally admire all the people in my life who are able to stick to their guns and go all the way with veganism or their environmental efforts of course, but the reality is the majority of people out there are lukewarm like me. We don’t like the thought of being deprived something forever, even if we know it’s bad for us. We don’t like being inconvenienced even though we know it’s not a great trait.
I’m not making excuses for myself or anybody. I’m just being real. Most humans these days are entitled and lazy assess and it’s hard to get them to give a damn. So try as hard as you can, I say, but don’t beat yourself up if you’re not consistent. Because every little thing makes a difference. If preaching that it’s okay to be mediocre not be a fanatic 24/7 makes more people give up a couple meat meals a week, or start using a reusable cup as much as they can, or start bringing their own reusable bags to shop with, or hunt for clothes every now and then in a secondhand shop…then it can’t be bad right? I think it’s more sustainable in the long run to encourage people to just do a little. It’s a like dieting. If you go hard on a crash diet, you’re likely to give up after a short while then start bingeing and telling yourself “screw this I don’t care anymore!” and weighing even heavier after than when you started the diet. But by going slow and steady and following the “moderation is key” approach and “this is a lifestyle, not a diet”, you’re more likely to sustain healthy habits for the long run. After a while, you might even feel like you can take the full plunge and commit to a life without chocolate.
For the record, the things I am doing/trying to do more of are:
- Eat vegetarian/vegan as much as possible.
- Occasionally, use soy instead of cows’ milk (this is the hardest one for me so I’m keeping it real).
- Gather fruit and veggie scraps to be taken to a community compost (we keep it in containers in the fridge as we only do this every few days).
- Recycle plastic, paper, and alumininium.
- Collect soft plastics and drop off at the RED recycling bin at the Coles supermarket near me.
- Only buy what we truly need (in terms of things around the house, clothes etc).
- Use reusable shopping bags and reusable produce bags.
- Take a reusable coffee cup everywhere with me.
- Use stainless steel straws (we even have bubble tea ones) and remember to take them out with me.
- Buy basics from bulk food stores using reusable containers.
- Make sure we’re finishing leftovers in the fridge and using up all the produce we buy and not throwing out any good food
It’s a process. I’m not consistent for sure, but hey, I’m trying. And this time I’m actually going to be consistent at trying because I’m being realistic at being consistent at trying.
What are you trying to do for the environment?