A Whole Awful Lot Is Enough

Authored by: Shannon Thoits

On the 5th of July, I traveled to Lincoln City, Oregon for a post-4th-of-July beach cleanup. As I walked down the beach, I came across a patch of sand that was completely choked with pieces of micro plastics (tiny bits of plastic that are created when larger plastic objects are broken up in the ocean). I sat in that patch for the better part of an hour, scooping sand with a colander to separate tiny plastic from tinier sand. Eventually, the cleanup was over and it was time to head back to Portland, and so I walked away, leaving still hundreds of plastic pieces to kill birds, pollute oceans, and cut the tiny feet of beach-going children.

 

This is just one concrete example of how I feel after doing a service project, and to some degree, how I’ve felt all summer: like I’m not doing enough. I picked up lots of the plastic, but there was still more left on the beach. I have served meals to those who are hungry, but I can’t give them food security. I have spent the summer helping SOLVE on many different projects to address litter, however, no matter how much trash we pick up, more trash is created every day. In addition, picking up that trash does nothing to solve the systemic problems of excess production and consumption all over the planet. Even if I pick up 10 plastic bottles during a litter cleanup, the US consumes 1,500 plastic water bottles every second, and it is more likely than not that those bottles will end up in a landfill or polluting some beach, river, forest, lake, or mountain.

 

I am in a constant state of feeling like I can never do enough to fix the environmental problems we have in the world today. Recognizing the reality of my small impact is discouraging, and reconciling it with the huge negative impacts that the planet faces every day is extremely frustrating. I seem to be walking up a mountain that gets 1,000 feet taller with every step I take.

 

From my cubicle every day, the future can begin to look bleak. One of my greatest fears is that I live my life and die and the world is no different because of it; I don’t want all of my efforts to come to nothing. I guess that could come across as a little selfish or egotistical, but I mean it in the most sincere and selfless way possible. I don’t want environmental movements to have made no progress in the 90ish years I will be alive. The thing that gets me out of bed every day is the idea that with my work and my life, I can help create a more sustainable future for our planet and its people, plants, and animals. That maybe, one day, pollution won’t pump from the pipes to choke river ecosystems; that solar panels will sparkle and shine on the landscape, replacing oil wells and pumps that bow to the earth only to destroy it for its resources; that stumps grow into forests and our oceans will be full of life instead of plastic and single-use plastics will be a thing of the past.

 

I re-read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax this morning, as I do from time to time when the real-world environmental problems are too much to handle and fictional ones seem less stressful. The quote “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Sometimes I will think, why should I even do [insert environmental service/project/endeavor] if my impact will be so small it barely makes a difference? This Lorax quote reminds me that something is happening because I care and because of the work that I’m doing and because thousands and hundreds of thousands of people like me can take our small impacts and turn them into a large impact.

 

In those brief moments when I am discouraged and frustrated, I remind myself that we thousands do care a whole awful lot, and things are getting better, slowly but surely, from the grassroots up. I do believe that by the end of my life, progress will have been made, and that whatever work I do will not stand alone, small in size. It will be a part of something larger than I could ever do alone.

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3 thoughts on “A Whole Awful Lot Is Enough

  1. Thanks for sharing vulnerably, Shannon. You had a very visceral experience of the overwhelming scale of our environmental problems. I think it is right to honor your feelings and grieve the state of our planet. I’m also glad that you have found a text of hope in The Lorax. There is a paradoxical nature to any of our environmental work, isn’t there? It never seems enough, and yet we must go on trying. A text of hope in my life is T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. At the end of my favorite passage he says, “And right action is freedom \ From past and future also. \ For most of us, this is the aim \ Never here to be realised; \ Who are only undefeated \ Because we have gone on trying; \ We, content at the last \ If our temporal reversion nourish \ (Not too far from the yew-tree) \ The life of significant soil.”

    One resource I recommend is George Marshall’s book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.” He explores strategies for COMMUNICATION about climate change, which makes a big difference. How can we motivate (ourselves and others) rather than paralyze? Whose frames are we using? How do we create ongoing conviction?

    I also direct you to the Climate Listening Project, created by filmmaker Dayna Reggero. I heard her speak this spring along with one of her collaborators, researcher and activist for resilient forms of agriculture Laura Lengnick. They suggest that hearing stories and learning to tell our own is one of the best ways we can engage with our environmental crises. Every person and every community has some sort of “climate story” on a local level. Through story-sharing, we can explore what we really care about and what inspires us to take action. Check out some of Dayna’s videos, and then perhaps you and your classmates might like to think about your own climate stories (you’ve already shared a poignant one above). Best wishes!

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  2. When things look bleak, it’s helpful to take a historical perspective. The EPA has some statistics on municipal recycling rates showing that 34% of waste generated in 2013 was recycled compared to 6% in 1960. There’s still litter, but we’re doing a lot better at disposing of our personal trash in sustainable ways.

    But litter is still a problem, obviously. What’s a policy solution that might solve the problem? Did you see trash cans and recycle bins on that beach in places that are convenient and visible to visitors? You might be able to make a big impact by getting the municipality to improve the disposal facilities.

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    1. To add: Given that the source of the micro plastic pieces isn’t local, you can also get involved with advocating for policies to promote reductions in the use of plastic on a more global scale.

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