The Biggest Myths When It Comes to Saving the World
Fun fact. The Romans believed the goddess Venus was born as a fully grown woman after Uranus had his genitals chopped off and thrown into the sea.
This mythology was passed down from generation to generation without any questions asked. While we might now think this is absolutely ridiculous, when it comes to saving the world we aren't doing much better today. That's because a lot of what we believe is making a huge difference isn't really doing much at all.
So, what are some of the biggest myths floating around out there?
Climate change is a hoax
I can’t believe I actually have to write this, but here goes.
If you’re not American, this section is optional. If you’re from the US (especially if you’re a prominent politician on the red side of the aisle) please read on. That’s because it seems like my native land is the only place left in the developed world still questioning the validity of climate change. I mean… come on. Climate change is not a hoax.
At this stage, it’s not even a majority of scientists who believe climate change is real. Today we have nearly unanimous agreement, sitting at 97 percent and growing, on the matter by the scientific community. Academies of science from 80 different countries agree and endorse this consensus. There are 18 scientific groups in the United States as well. Hell, even a group called Skeptical Scientists believes climate change is real.
If that’s not enough, over the past decade humanity has had the hottest summers on record. The National Geographic Society notes the five years between 2014 and 2018 were the hottest ever recorded. We’re talking 1 to 2 degrees centigrade hotter than average. Of course, you also have the outliers like Australia, which clocked temperatures of 49 degrees (120 F) during their most recent heatwave.
“Well, John, if temperatures are rising why was last winter so much colder than normal? My aunt in Wisconsin had to shovel her driveway three times a week!”
We tend to use the terms global warming and climate change interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Global warming is just one aspect of climate change and deals with rises in global temperatures due, primarily but not exclusively, to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change, on the other hand, is all-encompassing. It includes other aspects of the weather, like precipitation and wind patterns, all of which are changing right before our eyes. Your aunt having to wake up early more times than last year to dig her car out is another example of climate change. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the climate, changing.
Trash sorting is going to save us all
The next biggest fallacy, after denying climate change in total, may come as a bit of a shock. It involves all those beautifully colored bins we chuck our trash into. That is after spending hours separating it all.
Have you ever stopped to think about why we engage in this pretty arduous practice at all? Sure, we know it’s supposed to help with recycling somewhere down the supply chain. But the whole thing is pretty much out of sight, out of mind. You separate. The trash collector comes and dumps the bins into their noisy, smelly truck. Then off it goes down the street. Bye-bye waste and hello green future!
Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly the truth.
That’s because your household waste only makes up a very small part of all waste headed to the landfill. For the US, estimates put household waste between 3 and 10 percent of the total. That means that no matter how much recycling you do (mind you, Americans have the lowest recycling rates in the developed world), there’s still upwards of 97 percent of trash coming from other places. Collectors are essentially taking all the bins and throwing them together into the same dump. All that effort you put in! How dare they? Well, that’s because most of the downstream recycling is handled by private companies. The collection itself is usually done at the municipal level, but once it leaves that trash truck all bets are off.
The typical process goes something like this. Once the private trash collection company gets hold of that smelly gold, they take what they can and then sell it off to the highest bidder. Normally, those with cash come from the developing world, typically from China or Indonesia. Your trash (or at least the profitable part of your trash) is then shipped across the Pacific to be handled in places without human, labor, or environmental protections. Children and old women sift through the waste to break things down into even smaller parts. The conditions are brutal, pay low, and reward non-existent. We’ve just offset one problem and created another.
Not only is your trash hardly making a dent in waste and pollution, but all our work may be causing more of a headache than you realize. Most communities ask us to separate items into paper, plastic, metal, and waste. A lot of trash, though, is a combination of different materials. If we don’t break things down into their components, then private recycling companies are loathed to do anything with it. In some cases, mixed materials cannot even be properly sorted by the massive machines these companies use. So, it might end up in the wrong pile or thrown in with all the waste. This might explain why 91 percent of all plastics ever thrown away have ended up in the landfill instead of repurposed into something else.
The best analogy I’ve read on the futility of recycling sums things up well. Stated by Matt Wilkins, “Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper.” In short, it’s a lot of effort for very little return.
The biggest threat to our future
What’s the biggest threat to creating a more sustainable future? Is it the polluting greenhouse gas emissions from the developing world? How about the massive bergs of plastic littering our oceans? Or could it be the agriculture sector and its impact on air, water, and soil?
Do you have your answer?
Actually, none of those answers are correct.
While these are all problems working against us, they pale in comparison to the number one threat to saving the world. If everyone just did this one simple task, we’d be in a much better position. All it takes is a bit of will power, planning, and lots of condoms.
That’s because the biggest threat to the planet is us. To be specific, more of us.
The Earth is pretty much holding as many humans as it can. We’re at full capacity. I mean, like, no room at the inn full. We have to understand just how many of us there are now. While it’s taken for granted that crowded cities are part of modern life, this wasn’t always the case. Up until the last century, we were quite a limited group of animals. From time immemorial, the human population stayed well below half a billion people. In 1700, though, things started to change. Then, there were about 600 million humans worldwide. By 1900, we doubled this to 1.65 billion. For the next century, we would add a billion people almost every couple of decades. Today we stand at 7.7 billion strong, an exponential increase from our stone-age days. As we mentioned earlier, experts expect this number to grow, topping 10 billion by 2050.
That’s why the biggest thing you can do to save the planet is to have fewer children. I’m not advocating for you to have no children. Why don’t we just start with one fewer per person? Take a look at what kind of difference that can make.
According to IOP Science, having one fewer child will reduce annual personal emissions by an average of 58.6 tons of CO2 if you live in the developed world. Compare this to living without a car, which only reduces your emissions by 2.4 tons. How about going on a trendy plant-based diet? That will only reduce your emissions by a measly 0.8 tons a year. It gets worse. Recycling, which we all hold dear, reduces annual emissions by less than 0.1 tons. That means having one less child is exponentially more impactful than most of the things we’re doing today to combat climate change.
Damn it feels good to be an eco-gangster.
You’ve popped in a fully biodegradable coffee pod, jumped into your ethically sourced jeans, and drove to work in your electric car. Basically, you’ve helped save the Earth and all before lunch. If only everyone was just like you, we’d all be in a better place.
Hold on a minute.
We rarely question the everyday behaviors we’ve adopted as environmentally friendly in modern society. Taking things at face value, we trust our pods, jeans, and cars are as environmentally sound as the packaging says they are. I mean, how could I show my face at work if I wasn’t carrying my reusable mug? People would start talking!
It’s probably a good thing that they’d talk because at least then you’d be starting a conversation. Today’s eco-friendly behaviors are often just smokescreens to divert attention away from some very unsavory practices happening underneath. It’s not as if you’re supposed to know that. Companies do a great job of hiding it. As an educated environmentalist now, though, you’ve got to be held to a higher standard. Like recycling, that new standard involves you critically questioning your everyday actions and commonly held beliefs.
Take your ethically sourced jeans for example. Regardless of whether you purchased them at a fast-fashion behemoth or some boutique shop in Soho, the process of getting them from factory to showroom floor was likely less than ethical. Denim, by nature, is particularly harmful to the environment because of its typical production methods. First off, it uses a ton of water. To be more specific, 57 tons of water for a single pair of jeans. The processing and dyes in many cases run off into waterways near factories. It’s estimated 70 percent of Asia’s waterways are polluted by the textile industry. Add in toxic chemicals, labor issues, and agriculture depletion, and your favorite pair of sustainable jeans now has a very dirty backside.
As consumers, it’s impossible to change the way companies run their businesses. We have very little say or sway to fix fast fashions’ labor practices or international logistics. What we do have power over, however, is where and how we spend our money. If you want to go full eco-warrior with a product, consider buying a pre-loved version. Better yet, don’t buy anything at all. Remember, it’s reduce first, then reuse, and finally recycle. If you’re not willing to wear someone else’s used clothes, at least acknowledge that you perhaps aren’t as environmentally friendly as you think. The sooner we stop kidding ourselves, the sooner we can all move forward.
While the number of truly ethical companies is growing by the minute, it’s up to all of us to make sure we know who those companies are. While ignorance may be bliss, it does nothing to help the environment. The false narrative which allows us to live in an ignorance where truths are ignored is something we all need to combat.
West is best
For the little he has accomplished, President Trump has, however, had one big positive to come out of his term in office. Believe it or not, the Trump administration has inadvertently created a more sustainable future for us all. Of course, we know he dismantled domestic environmental protections and tried to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. Trump has left America in what is technically defined as a shit sandwich. Halfway across the world, though, a very different group of leaders were more than willing to take what Trump was offering up on a silver platter.
From their highly secure gated community within view of the Forbidden City, Chinese Party cadres were probably skipping around and high fiving each other as reporters called the 2016 election. While they understood Trump as a businessman, something highly regarded in the Middle Kingdom, they also realized just how big of an opportunity was on offer. For years, Beijing had been looking for a way to gain legitimacy on the world stage as it began its pursuit of global reputation building. Now, that time had come.
Little did they know, though, just how much of a windfall they’d be getting. Over just a few short years, Trump was able to destroy the ethical and moral leadership that the United States wielded since the golden post World War Two era. He created a power vacuum—one which China was more than happy to fill. While Beijing couldn’t pick up every piece from Trump’s broken America, they certainly homed in on one piece in particular—the environment.
Coincidentally, this also happened to be the biggest issue facing humanity (including the 1.6 billion people who call China home). Where Trump dropped the ball, Beijing was right there to do an alley-oop straight into the basket. Nothing but net. China is now, without a doubt, the world’s leader in sustainable investment. Beijing has invested close of US$400 billion on domestic green technologies since 2017, more than twice that of the entire European Union, and an additional US$250 billion on global projects. China created the world’s first taxonomy on sustainable investment, which is now the global gold standard in impact investment. Public transportation in numerous cities, like the southern megalopolis of Shenzhen, runs entirely on electric vehicles. China also has a long list of superlatives to add to its resume—the world’s biggest electric vehicle market; the world’s longest high-speed rail network; the world’s largest solar and wind energy producer. The list goes on.
This is quite the step change from just a few years ago when most considered China not only the world’s factory but also its biggest polluter. While things certainly aren’t perfect, China is now doing more than its fair share of creating a more sustainable future for us all. This was always the direction they were headed in, but Trump kicked this into overdrive. Now, it’s time to look east for inspiration.
These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the myths we face day in and day out. In some cases, like that of recycling, the ends justify the means. Sure, the narrative isn’t exactly right, but it’s great we’ve created a culture whereby recycling is just an expected part of everyday life. Others, like assuming the US and Europe hold all the knowledge on sustainability, are truly detrimental to progress. We’ve got to wean ourselves off these myths so that we can then make the positive impact I know we so desperately desire.