Zhang: The path of least resistance is not enough

Dani Zhang, Columnist

This fall, I am taking online courses from my hometown of Vancouver, and I cannot help but notice the level of environmental consciousness here. Environmental protests are held every year, Greta Thunberg rallied with us during a climate strike once, and a neighborhood of Zero Emissions Buildings is within walking distance from downtown.

One of Vancouver’s most impressive environmental feats is its Zero Emissions Building Plan. All new buildings constructed after 2016 are required to be carbon neutral, and older buildings are retrofitted under more energy-efficient requirements and switched to renewable energy supplies. With 59% of Vancouver’s total emissions coming from buildings, this plan can drastically push Vancouver towards its goal of having 100% of its energy come from renewable sources by 2050.

In Vancouver, the culture of environmental consciousness sticks out like a green thumb, and living in this city has caused me to think about an individual’s responsibility in this world. I believe there is a basic principle most people would agree with when posed the question, “What is a good person like?”

The judgement of whether a person has a positive influence depends on the moral standards of the beholder. But at the very least, I hope we can all agree our existence should not leave the world in a worse condition — a simple requirement all good, upstanding people can meet.

Yet, that demand may be more difficult than we think. The average American has a carbon footprint of 16 tons and produces an average of 1,704 pounds of garbage per year. This is not to mention the invisible industrial practices behind the storefronts of brands, shops, and markets.

Pollution, deforestation, soil degradation — these are some of the repercussions of the capitalistic society in which we live with ease. Within this context, the simple principle of having no negative impact on the world now seems monumental, nearly impossible for everyone.

I must admit, the responsibility of environmental conservation is not simply a personal burden. A majority of it can only be attributed to societal structures. A research paper published in the Journal of Poverty found that poverty is one of the primary instigators of environmental degradation. Poverty restricts people’s options, knowledge acquisition, and resources, leaving impoverished communities with little choice but to make economically conservative decisions that degrade the environment.

Other societal structures also prevail. Convenience is a major driver of personal habit, and society is structured so that it is convenient for an individual to generate waste, to be a meat eater, and to have a carbon footprint. It is commonplace for people to consume manufactured foods and beverages in single-use containers, drive cars that emit carbon dioxide, and shop for imported goods.

In the 21st century, an emphasis on consumer convenience has allowed numerous businesses to thrive; companies such as Amazon, DoorDash, and Instacart provide in-home delivery to save more time and effort for the customer.

It is clear to me that if we continue to take the path of least resistance, then good, upstanding people will keep harming the environment, and we will find it more and more difficult to abide by our simple ideal. To incur no damage onto this world, we have to actively divert from the norm.

For many people, the idea of quitting Cheetos, bottled soda, and Costco pre-wrapped produce is absolutely preposterous. I admit, I also enjoy products in plastic containers: milk, cosmetic products, and soap are just a few off the top of my head. I’m also guilty of ordering takeout and making online orders that deliver to my doorstep — especially given the epidemic.

During COVID-19, even Lauren Singer, a noted environmentalist, decided that her health and safety are more important than remaining zero-waste and purchased numerous canned products and food in disposable plastics.

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group calls Vancouver’s Zero Emissions Building Plan “the most stringent building codes in North America for a cold climate city” when it should have been called “normal”. We all have limitations, and while we’re all trying our best, I believe we can be even better, one Cheeto bag at a time.

Dani Zhang is a Communications Sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.