The ease of doing sustainability
The Earth Day theme this year is ‘Invest in Our Planet’. The <i>organisers’ call to action</i> is: “We need to act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably). It’s going to take all of us. All in. Businesses, governments, and citizens — everyone accounted for, and everyone accountable. A partnership for the planet.’
In the world of influencers, social media platforms are flush with green businesses selling sustainably-sourced products. There is a heady sense that we can save the planet if we just consume more sustainable products. The oxymoron of sustainable consumption notwithstanding, there is an argument to be made that while individual action is important, there are significant limits to glorifying individual action in saving the planet. If we rely entirely on individuals or local action, our larger systems will remain broken. What we need is systemic change that is encouraged and supported by governments to improve the ‘ease of doing sustainability’.
The IPCC’s Working Group III report released on April 4 refers to individual choices, behaviour and lifestyle changes that can help mitigate climate change. Lifestyle choices, however, can be fickle and inconsistent. Let me explain using bottled water consumption as an example. In the last year, I have attended large events that served water only in 250 ml plastic bottles. The use of these tiny bottles seems to have increased post-Covid. Each bottle contains exactly one serving, minimising the possibility of someone accidentally drinking from another person's bottle.
A guest determined to be eco-friendly at such an event would have to go out of their way to carry their own bottle and walk to a water filling point and back several times a day. Engaging in a sustainable choice would involve a deliberate and performative act -- so called ‘virtue signalling’.
The problem is relying on virtue signalling to save the planet is counter-productive. In the bottled water example, the guests at these events, by and large, interpreted the tiny water bottles as effective solutions to a public health hazard, as opposed to horrendous contributors of ocean microplastics. Two years into a global pandemic, people’s heightened awareness of their own mortality and the risks from infectious diseases are at an all-time high. The risk of consuming 0.1 g of microplastics each week seems remote, almost esoteric in comparison.
Thus, because sustainability is only one of many virtues an individual might signal at a particular point in time, it limits sustainable actions to people who self-identify as environmentally-conscious. It tends to spread within groups of like-minded people. Other communities signal other virtues, doctors double mask, fitness folks carry protein bars, religious people display visible marks of their faith and so on. In a polarised world with hundreds of echo chambers, relying on virtue signalling can’t save the planet.
No one wants to destroy the planet. People just want to avoid getting sick or spreading disease more than they want to save the planet. The problem we need to solve is how to meet everyday basic needs for everyone in the most sustainable way.
Paradoxically, cheaper, more effective solutions to many environmental problems already exist. In the case of bottled water, hotels in different parts of the world offer glass screw top bottles with safe water filled from an on-site bottling plant to reassure customers that their water is safe. In most of the US and Canada, the safety of drinking water poured from a bottle into a glass is not even in question; their trust in public water systems is implicit. Despite the fact that our chosen approach of quenching thirst via hundreds of tiny plastic bottles is suboptimal by every metric, it still persists and is spreading.
Making a sustainable choice should be simple, accessible, enjoyable, and if not the lowest cost option, it should at least be reasonably affordable. It shouldn’t require a grand gesture of self-sacrifice. Investing in our planet should focus on this. There is a lot of innovation and investment in green products, but companies focus on labelling to show-off how green they are. What we really need is investment in systemic solutions that nudge individual choice in the right direction.
Often corporate incentives run in the opposite direction. Hundreds of tiny water bottles yield more corporate profit than a bottle filling service or safe piped drinking water for all. Clearly, systemic change cannot be driven by corporations alone either. It must be the job of the government to encourage investment in areas where the market is externalising.
Governments often boast about the ‘ease of doing business’ in their country. What if we instead rated countries on the ‘ease of doing sustainability’? In such a case we would not track outcomes, which vary a lot across countries depending on where they are in their development pathway, but rather how institutions are structured to enable better choices by people and corporations.
Dr. Veena Srinivasan is the Director of the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE, Bengaluru.