I eat meat. Not every day but most days. I also eat out at least twice a week. That means take-out containers and plastic. I ride the New York City subway just about every day, and I try to avoid cabs. However, I also plan to own a car one day, and I fly for work often enough.
I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not perfect. And I don’t intend to be.
To some, that may sound controversial. To others, it may even sound hypocritical. To all, I say: Screw you! While individuals are free to shape their lifestyles to align with their environmental values, eating salads and riding bikes aren’t going to save the world. Only forcing the fossil fuel industry to clean up its act will—and until that happens, I refuse to believe people should be shamed for living in the world we’ve built.
The shame game has been real lately. Ever since Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced her Green New Deal resolution, she’s been getting attacked from all fronts because, well, she’s no saint. PETA gave her shit for not going vegan. The New York Post recently called her out for riding in cars and not composting her sweet potato peels. Right-wingers barraged her after her chief of staff was spotted enjoying a burger for dinner.
But what good does any of that do? As Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter to the New York Post, she’s “living in the world as it is.” That doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a better future—we do! But to get there, we’re going to have to focus on the fossil fuel corporations whose products are responsible for most of our global greenhouse gas emissions, and the politicians failing to shift societies away from our dependency on them.
According to a 2017 report from CDP, a charity that conducts research around corporate environmental transparency, more than 70 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced back to just 100 fossil fuel producers. While we’re all responsible for buying their product, these giant oil and gas companies have the power to change course, Sara Law, CDP’s vice president of global initiatives, told Earther. She said she’s “without a doubt” that the goal set forth by the Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, would be within reach if the biggest fossil fuel producers took swift action.
As a baby step, these companies can rein in the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their infrastructure. Ultimately, they need to overhaul their business models and end the extraction of oil, gas, and coal entirely. Either way, fossil fuel producers need strong governmental policies that encourage them to make the necessary shifts. Those policies might look like Spain’s move to ban all gas-powered cars by 2040, or Costa Rica’s plan to eliminate its carbon emissions by 2050. From an individual action perspective, voting in leaders who’ll push for these systemic changes will make a far bigger difference than skipping meat once in a while ever can.
And while politicians and fossil fuel giants have the power to change society, those most impacted by climate change often don’t. In urban and rural food deserts where few fresh foods exist, McDonald’s burgers may be the most affordable option. For immigrants, a plane ride may be the only way they can visit their family abroad once a year. For communities of color scared to drink their potentially contaminated tap water, bottled water may be the safest choice.
Earlier this year, a young high schooler asked me what she could do to help the environment. After a second of deep thought, I told her my truth: Always be mindful of what the most-hard hit communities need. And that’s communities of color and the low-income. Then, I reminded her that saving the world can’t happen only within our homes. It’ll happen by changing what goes on within corporate board meetings, Congress, and the White House. The simple act of voting on who gets to sit in these spaces is powerful.
So I’ll keep on eating my late-night burger while striving for a better world. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.