Be better, big business
Last week we had dinner with our friend Rachel. We talked about important things like recycling, the Greenbelt, and how to pronounce the phrase glou-glou. My husband showed us the curious mail-it-back packaging on the broccoli rabé he had just made, and we all pondered it for a good while, over a winter white and a soundtrack of nü yacht rock. But the chill vibes of the latter part of that sentence couldn’t mitigate my annoyance at the former part. I had a case of rabé recycling rage. What kind of evil entity thinks you are going to mail back a sliver of packaging? It’s a time tax wrapped in unfilled producer responsibility slathered in a complete disregard for customers, and I doubt a single human being in the history of time has ever mailed back their rabé wrapper.
The well-intentioned company TerraCycle does this for hundreds of products. But look how much work each product requires. Is the solution to a billion tonnes of plastic waste getting individuals to mail back their mango squeezies one by one? No, no, it is not. We will die walking back and forth to the post office, full of good intentions and bad solutions. (But at least our step count will be through the roof.)
My vexation stems from the fact that this is the individualization of the wrong kind of responsibility. We most certainly do have individual action to take (don’t come at me with the “companies are responsible for 71% of our emissions!” because of course they are!), it’s just that those actions must be meaningful, and not cynical. Rabé, no way! Our time, and the planet’s time, is too valuable to waste on anything but the right things.
Saul Griffith, the brilliant founder of my organization, Rewiring America, puts it thus in a new documentary about him that you really should watch:
My worry for the world is we’re just taking spare time away from parents and there’s less creativity and less imagining in households than ever before. You know it’s 8:43 and we’ve got to get the kids to school by 9:15 and lunches aren’t made. How are we going to solve climate change? Shit!
A diminishment of all the things that make life life-y, because we are stretched like Jane Fonda in my favorite exercise video of 1983. My lovely neighbor David echoed the further ramifications of this overweighted individual burden at the macro scale last week, when I declared that while our street had pretty good community, it didn’t really match the energy of the generation before us, a cohort whose kids and adults all played together all the time. “Everybody works more now, both parents,” he said.
Which is why the climate asks must not be piecemeal and weak, but substantive and joyful. And that’s if you have to ask people for them at all. You shouldn’t. We should bake the changes into life automatically, in our efficient new induction stoves.
A few months ago the Washington Post launched a column called The Climate Coach. Not wanting to be a churl, I stayed silent while my colleagues enthused about it. Because overall, it’s great to see more climate coverage. But climate coach as framing is problematic — it’s another thing to do, a chore for your to-do list. You know what doesn’t need coaching? Burning fossil fuels and managing the already copious weight of your daily life. We need to stop coaching and start baking in the ease that helps people just make a few really important and consequential climate decisions almost effortlessly. Which is, incidentally, what that really good but poorly named column was about this week: Get a heat pump!
All of this explains why I’m dubious of a certain myopic strain of capitalism that seems to always present the silliest individualized solutions to systemic problems. I don’t want to mail back that Nespresso pod. I want YOU to make a seamless podless system, like my wasteless, delicious Jura, Nespresso!
It’s not complicated. We need to get people to do things that matter. If I had a dollar for every time I said this, I’d buy up all the rabé packaging and build a twist-tied monument to the limited scope of a world that imagines mailing back a wrapper a creative solution to anything. A mailable rapper, on the other hand, would be very cool.
Even a laborious solution is a smidge better than no solution. But we haven’t time to labor on the inconsequential. We’ve got big things to do, beautiful lives to enjoy, and a climate to unimperil. No single-use individual abuse required.
What time taxes you? What are your big, consequential wins? LMK!
What even was the last planet? I took a month-long break to regain my sanity and tidy my house. I did neither of these things.
We’re hiring. Come work with me and my brilliant team? Designer! Partner communications strategist!
I know I’ve linked to it before, but this Volts interview with Erica Thompson on modeling, and its failings, is so good. I will write a whole MVP about it.
Did you see these great Double Bacon EV ads? Swear I’m not just linking to it because of Sosie Bacon’s cute jumpsuit! Or maybe I am.
I was honored to be on the jury for the Rewilding Arts Prize. There were so many beautiful, brilliant submissions, more than 500 in fact. Many of these works are imprinted on my brain. Here are two, a moss-covered armchair by the artist Natasha Lavdovsky, and a land back purse made out of birch bark by the incredible Amber Sandy.
They are so unbelievably good!!!!
Thank you for reading! As always, let me know how to make his newsletter better. Have a lovely, cozy, warm, cool, relaxing, danceful weekend!
I agree with you 100%. So tired of constantly collecting items I can’t recycle at home and than mailing them to Terracycle. It makes me question my intentions as mailing also requires lots of recourses.
Pointless climate theater is infuriating, because for one segment it reinforces the idea that all you have do is pack up your rabe wrapper, drive it to the post office, where it gets put on another truck, and driven or flown to a distant destination, to get "recycled." Net carbon output of this pointless gesture is probably through the roof.
But it also gives fodder to the "it's all corporations' fault" contingent that OVER-states the minimal impact of our individual actions. This is an all-hands-on-deck sitch, people.
Economists have long pointed out that carrots and sticks are often just matters of phrasing. For climate solutions and lots of other good stuff, baking the right choice into the equation makes perfect sense. E.g. automatically signing up an all of a city's residents for a municipal aggregation program for clean energy (while allowing an opt out) makes a whole lot more sense than requiring people to affirmatively sign up.
My city saw this not that long ago when it banned single use plastic bags and required retailers to start charging 5 cents a bag. While the "you'll never take my gas stove alive" crowd predictably clutched its pearls over this latest Assault on Our Liberties, of course, it has worked quite well. But here's the funny thing: Most retailers were already giving customers a 5 cent DISCOUNT for bringing their own bags. What's the difference? Absolutely none. All phrasing. 5 cent discount for Thing A = 5 cent cost for Not Thing A. As General Douglas MacArthur famously said, "we are not retreating - we are advancing in the opposite direction."
And why does Broccoli Rabe even need a wrapper?