Year for the Planet Week 19: When Sustainability Becomes Lonely

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.


Here’s something I wouldn’t usually admit in the middle of a project:

Sheesh, sustainability can be really isolating.

I don’t even mean the work in searching for knowledge or getting things done—that’s one of the best parts. I mean that almost halfway through, it’s getting pretty lonely doing this eating-for-the-planet thing. Because I realize that not very many people are for it.

I’m not saying that people who learn about this project aren’t encouraging or supportive. Everyone I’ve met seems to be impressed or happy that I’m doing this. They see that it’s been doing so well for me, and even the most negative ones are grudgingly saying it’s a good thing because of all the glow and weight loss. (Their next sentence is usually a question of advice for faster results because they have a wedding or something. Vanity, of course, is universal.)

The problem is that people agree that making better choices is a good solution, but claim they are too stuck in their old ways to make the switch. Too quickly, I got tired of people saying “Oh wow, that’s amazing” and wish they’d tell me “Hey I’ve done that, let me share with you some tips!” instead.

I’m actually surprised that even colleagues in sustainability or those who wear the activist badge aren’t that keen on changing themselves. I don’t think I have a friend who would eagerly try insects with me—the last time I suggested this, I got the “No, I’ll stick to beef, thanks.” *sob*

Many of my friends who I can talk to about my environmental projects are fortunate to be born with way better cards than I. They are citizens of countries that, in 2017, seem to have their shit together, at least compared to the Philippines today, where I easily get all my ideas on climate change apocalypses—or let’s be real, pretty much anything that has a whisper of armageddon— because I see these on a daily basis and thus need no big stretch of the imagination. But still, I feel lots of these privileged friends of mine can do better. It’s like they look at other people with different circumstances and look at their own with more pride at their accidental births instead of compassion for “The Other”, more smugness at the cards they were dealt with by chance instead of outrage at inequality in the world.

During many of these Global North – Global South conversations, I would often sit quietly and listen (because man, can they talk!) with a mixture of Awe, (wow, these people are born with so many freedoms!), Envy (I can’t help but compare these to the many roadblocks that plague me despite whatever record of accomplishments I may have) and Exasperated Muted Incredulity (So if your country is so hot, why is your career so lame? Where the heck is your TED talk?* Bah!) And here I wonder, when did you give up, and on that note, when will I? Surely it’s only a matter of time before I cave in as well. It’s just so much easier to do what people around you are already doing.

*[I’m only slightly kidding about the TED talk. And FYI, not all my privileged friends are this way. You know what I mean. The world needs people with more projects, more knowledge they gathered themselves and want to share, and less white entitlement and opinions that don’t matter. Bah humbug.]

It was easy not to get lonely in taekwondo—most of my best and most trusted friends came from this sport. We all experienced the same troubles, so when you had a problem, be it as simple as tying your belt, to serious as to whether it was ok to train during X stage of recovery from an injury, it was standard procedure to go to your “senior” and just ask for help. He or she already went through this at that earlier level of training, and so it was a matter of understanding the problem and later surpassing yourself.

In the case of the environment, it’s a matter of transcending so many outdated and harmful systems, which one person cannot do alone. I didn’t set out to change anyone else but myself—and I remember how I was so self-satisfied about this—but I realize that there are limits to this thinking as well. Quite a paradox I exist in today—my body is so happy and so is my wallet because I just don’t feel like buying anything. But I’m also a social human being, and boohoo this isolation sucks.

And this is what I think the key to sustainability is—not just agreeing that change is good, but wanting to change ourselves enough to keep going despite feeling like you’re alone. And this is also why I think the environmentalists I respect tend to be on the crabby, disillusioned side. I think most of the solutions to climate change already exist—the bigger problem is getting people to opt into it. The hardest thing to do is changing our minds. We are our own worst enemy.

Fear is the main emotion I see regardless of where people are from. The fear of what other people would say, the fear of embarrassment, the fear of a Higher Being, the fear of failure, the fear of looking less than somebody else. No one wants to look vulnerable or afraid, even though I suspect deep down, they are. And fear is what keeps them from trying just a teeny bit harder and going outside their boxes, whether those enclosures are shabby or gilded cages.

The second emotion is exhaustion. I’ve known too many people whose youthful idealism had been long tempered because of bureaucracy. Sometimes I think this is the part of being an artist that makes this unstable life worth it—I don’t have a boss or colleagues to please. My standards are as high or as low as I want to be. I can focus on constantly keeping myself in check.

So, some solutions as I want to end on a positive note. When I get lonely in this project this is what I do:

1. Go online. Of course, it’s a little different on the internet, when I can find many a zero-waste blog, a clean-eating website, and environmental documentary on Netflix that makes me feel a little bit more … myself. I would eagerly devour the latest piece of news about caterpillars eating plastic, and automatically design a caterpillar nursery cum garbage disposal in my head. As happy as I am with the way I live, there is always room for improvement, so I take all these bits of knowledge and find out how I can tweak my system better.

2. Read. I also discover that, as always, reading can make me snap out of my grumpiness. In a city besotted with consumerism, I rarely go out anymore—there are just so many environment or sci-fi books loaded in my Kindle that are way more interesting. I don’t even need to order any food, as I’ve just meal-prepped enough energy balls for the week, made my cold-brew coffee and cashew milk, and stocked up on my sweet potatoes and zucchinis. I can go for days without speaking.

3. Make. If I’m horrified at seeing a plastic straw, I take it out in the kitchen, invent a smoothie, and drink it without one. I don’t think it negates anything, but I do feel better about this strategy of doing something healthy for myself. And really, angry as I am at all the terrible news and inaction nowadays, my face hasn’t broken out once in the past few weeks. Eating for the planet, even though it makes me almost a pariah of society, strangely also becomes my shield from the perils of it.

Maybe one reason for this enviro-angst is that I have more time and energy—an odd and ironic turn of events. Next week, I will dedicate my time to making more instead of ranting (sorry). I’m a lot better at that.


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