March 12, 2012

The Problem With Saving the World

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In recent memory, I bought a sub-par cookie and a tepid cup of chocolate tasting water from someone fundraising on Ho Plaza. What bothers me isn’t so much that the experience wasn’t worth anywhere in the neighborhood of two dollars. What bothers me is that afterwards, I was left with a Styrofoam cup and a sheet of plastic wrap to throw away.I handed over my money for what most people would call a “good cause” — an organization run locally by my fellow students, that seeks to do good by the world and is willing to unravel the logistics to do it. I feel relatively assured that most of my money will probably go into paying for things that aren’t administrative overhead — travel costs, or paying for materials to build something or throwing a really expensive party. Or whatever. The point is, I feel okay about handing over my money, because ultimately I know I’m enabling my fellow students to do stuff that’s good for other people, and getting the chance to feel appropriately humanitarian myself. What’s not to love?On the other hand, I distinctly remember a time when Ho Plaza was covered with environmental groups informing me of the evils of disposable plastics and the importance of reducing our consumption. Every time I go to throw something away in a campus dining facility, an ominous gray sign passive aggressively informs me that landfill waste gets trucked to a facility where it remains for THOUSANDS OF YEARS. Ah. Crap. So having finished my dry, tasteless cookie and dumped the remains of a truly disappointing hot chocolate, I’m left standing next to the trash can, holding this cup and this piece of plastic wrap, with an image in my head of some poor fish somewhere who chokes on my Styrofoam cup. Or this piece of plastic wrap sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years. Or even better, breaking down in the ocean, getting eaten by a fish and introducing toxic plastics into the aquatic food chain.What’s a socially responsible student to do? Sure, I could have not purchased anything from this student group. Like hundreds of other Cornellians that cross Ho Plaza every day, I could have ignored the tablers, stuck my hands in my pockets so they couldn’t hand me a quarter card and kept walking. But I know how important the scant dollars from these sorts of things are to making a budget. And I hate quartercarding because people stick their hands in their pockets and don’t make eye contact. How am I supposed to turn down the appeal of making the day of my fellow student a little brighter, contributing to a good cause AND getting something potentially tasty to eat before lecture?Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Knowing the implications of my actions makes me reach for the “fair trade” tap of coffee when the night turns into a ridiculously early morning, in spite of knowing that the labeling is mostly a marketing gimmick. It’s why there’s a precariously stacked tower of reusable plastic on my counter, which required more energy to produce than its disposable counterpart. It’s why I still feel enormous guilt, because no matter how hard I try, somewhere in every process I must have purchased the labor of some migrant worker working under appalling conditions, probably added to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and contributed to the cloud of greenhouse gases that’s slowly baking my planet. And don’t even start on how I feel when I dump three sets of disposable gloves into the trash — theoretically working on solutions to the “We’re-Using-Up-the-Earth” problem — over the course of a couple of hours in lab. In the end, I realized I was late for class and decided that being on time was more important than philosophically musing over a trash can. The problems I’m feeling guilt over have deep institutional causes, and some have been gaining momentum since the Industrial Revolution. I’m going to need the best education this institution can give me in order to fight them (which, in theory, involves going to class).  I’m comforted by the thought that some of you environmental scientists or philosophers are undoubtedly more qualified to decide whether or not I should be feeling guilt over this issue. Until that decision happens, I’ll stick to the cause I know best — incidentally, it involves making cookies that are not overbaked and dry. Sorry, too busy baking cookies to feel guilty about how bad this nonstick pan is for the environment.

Deborah Liu is a junior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Deborah Liu