Efforts to live more sustainably have been popularized by individuals, leaders, and corporations across the globe. While reports seem to indicate that people are more socially aware, the widespread popularization of the term ‘sustainability’ falsely leads us to believe that we are doing much more than we actually are. In reality, we are on a path of pseudo-sustainability. Most of us proudly take baby steps, with the full expectation to be applauded and congratulated by our peers. We change enough to get recognition, but not so much that we are inconvenienced. We do this while we continue to devastate the ecosystems that sustain us, increasing existential threat.
Online misinformation supports the notion that ‘baby steps’ or incremental policy change is enough to change the trajectory of a dying planet. Anything more is considered too radical, extreme, idealistic, or unfeasible. Maintaining the status quo is an example of institutionalized hegemony, as late philosopher Antonio Gramsci would describe. Cultural hegemony legitimizes the ideology and beliefs of the ruling class and the social and economic systems that support it. To live within this cultural hegemony makes it easier to legitimize cruelty, exploitation, and greed.
The incremental approach is commonly practiced by leaders who only operate out of self-interest. They throw a bone or two to keep voters and consumers happy and leave it at that. Lately, this approach has been more commonly espoused in the animal agriculture industry.
Animal agriculture is the most destructive industry in the planet, yet we have let our ego and politics divert our attention away from the deplorable, cruel industry and towards denigrating each other. We judge others for being too radical, scold vegans for being militant, all while refusing to reflect on what we can collectively do to reduce unnecessary suffering and violence. Ironically, I experienced the most judgment in social activist circles for my criticism of animal agriculture, exploitation and its effects on the environment. I was mainly criticized for not being compassionate enough towards humans (apparently caring for animals and caring for people were seen as mutually exclusive). The injustices they cared about only extended to humans, specifically whatever marginalized group captured the most media attention at the time. In these outraged circles, social justice activists arbitrate what issues we should care about, while judging and ostracizing others for believing in something different.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report reveals that one of the most effective actions individuals can take towards decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce consumption of animal products. Unfortunately, many took this statement as a mere suggestion, while others took offense at the notion of individuals taking responsibility to reduce fossil fuels.
For various reasons, people don’t like to change. So we give them the option to take baby steps to help cushion the discomfort. ‘Meatless Mondays’ is the most pervasive example of a baby step I’ve ever seen. Meatless Mondays is a global movement of people dedicated to going meat-free once a week. Folks who participate are applauded and coddled online and off for being bold and courageous. 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are created by livestock and their byproducts, and here we are talking about going meatless once a week. I’m sick of being expected to celebrate others while they do mental gymnastics to justify continued exploitation.
Incrementalism is a common feature in climate policy, too. Last year, the IPCC warned that if global temperatures exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, the consequences would be catastrophic: global sea levels will rise over 10 cm, heat waves would affect more than one-third of the planet, the Arctic sea ice would lead to more ice-free summers creating more habitat losses for polar bears, whales, seals and sea birds, and virtually all of the world’s reefs would be lost.
The solution to this bleak report? To revive another climate agreement. Nearly 200 countries came together to develop the Paris Agreement with the ultimate goal of keeping global temperatures well below a rise of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. So far, the results aren’t anything to write home about. Countries are not meeting their targets; the agreements aren’t legally enforcing so many countries must rely on political and moral persuasion to push for more action; while other countries have pulled out altogether. Corinne La Quere, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in England said, “It’s not fast enough. It’s not big enough. There’s not enough action.” It’s hardly even a baby step.
These passive actions are a way for us to pat ourselves on the back while still being able to consume beyond our means and indulge in our vices. In reality, we know that these actions will never make a dent in the damage we caused on the planet. Despite the existential threat we face, politicians continue to pursue the pragmatic approach. Right wing conservatives deny global warming altogether while Democrats are content with making small, gradual changes. It’s enough for global leaders and self-proclaimed experts to sign up for these initiatives – but it’s not enough for the planet. Margaret Klein Salamon, founder and director of The Climate Mobilization wrote to Common Dreams about this piecemeal approach, “Gradualism is fundamentally incompatible with protecting civilization and the natural world. It’s pathetic that the Democrats are continuing to pursue this approach.”
It took more than baby steps to get us to where we are. It took years of exploitation, cruelty, slave labor, greed, resource extraction, pillaging, and rabid mass consumption. And it will take a lot more than baby steps to get us out. Our policies, ideologies, and moral compass should reflect this. Now is not the time to coddle or accept the status quo. Accepting the status quo means you are complicit in contributing to exploitation of our planet. The planet doesn’t care about ego and it cannot be saved through baby steps alone.
Rozali is writer and editor of Growing Up Alienated. She has contributed to publications including CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Peace Magazine, among others. She can be reached at email@example.com.