January 26, 2020

NGUYEN | Is Environmentalism Futile?

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When I first learned about climate change, I learned it as fact. (To contextualize: I grew up in California.) I remember folding my legs in criss-cross-applesauce as I watched my fifth-grade science teacher uncap a neon green Mr. Sketch marker (you know, the ones that scream “lime-scented” from ten feet away) and outline a diagram of the greenhouse effect. Mrs. Weber, who we secretly referred to as The Weberbug, explained it in elementary-school terms. The greenhouse effect is like a comforter, she said. When you throw a comforter on, the blanket traps your body heat, warming up anything bound within. Simple as that.

The Weberbug taught me that global warming was a reality — fact, truth, certainty. Though my understanding of the greenhouse effect has since expanded beyond that comforter analogy, I continued walking through life accepting that our planet faced inevitable warming. But along with this knowledge, I also carried an ignorant naivete that the environment’s ailments would easily be resolved. After all, if the very planet that dictates our existence is in danger, wouldn’t the world’s inhabitants want to save it?

But, clearly, fifth-grade Niko was lightyears ahead of the dismissive politicians and business leaders that dominate our world. He innocently — and wrongly — assumed that the adults would fix the climate crisis, that they would be able to devise the technology and drum up the support needed to salvage our beloved Earth.

Fast forward a few years: Now, I’m an adult. And the climate crisis? It’s as bad as it’s ever been.

Last semester at Cornell, I enrolled in two environmental science courses to fulfill my distribution requirements (and to be quite honest, I thought they would be easy A’s on my transcript). But what I took away from those two classes was much more than I had initially expected. I didn’t just learn a slew of environmental fun facts that I could whip out as trivia for my friends, and I definitely didn’t gain an enlightened perspective on how close humanity is to redressing the climate crisis. I walked out of that semester with an unbearable sense of hopelessness.

By 2050, even if we engage in worldwide mobilization to terminate the planet’s warming, 70-90 percent of coral reefs will die. By the end of the century, warming oceans may wipe out 17 percent of all marine life and more than half the world’s marine species may face extinction. Sea levels will rise by 8 feet, ocean acidity will increase by 170 percent and Earth’s global history will be stained with its first human-induced mass extinction.

Don’t flippantly gloss over these facts and shrug off the guilt and fear surrounding these realities. Let it sink in. Let yourself feel the gravity of what it means for our global biodiversity to peter out, for our oceans to face inevitable peril — for our planet to deteriorate before our eyes.

And at one point or another, it starts to feel hopeless when all of this tragedy settles into our psyche. I struggled with finding the motivation to even care about sustainability and environmentalism, doubting that my individual contribution could even make a dent on this global issue. After all, if I avoid consuming red meat, how does that stop the plates and plates of wasted, half-eaten hamburgers funneling through Cornell Dining’s dish returns every single day? If I commit myself to a zero-waste lifestyle, how does my microscopic contribution soften the blow of the exorbitant waste that humanity produces? Not to mention, sustainability is a rich man’s game: Only those who have privilege, wealth and access are able to  afford reusable straws, plant-based diets and the time to care about matters beyond affording rent.

It is unfair that we, as a collective humanity, are forced to shoulder the guilt of this climate crisis — a guilt perpetuated by those at the top who have failed to tangibly act against global warming.

Despite the lack of control and the sense of despair that shrouds environmentalism, inaction from global leaders is exactly why we should continue to fight for sustainability and the preservation of our planet. I watched as California underwent drastic hardship over the past few years, with our years-long drought and our seasonal wildfires. Our people, our neighbors and our loved ones are the ones affected by these consequences — which makes this oceans-wide climate crisis a personal issue.

Whether it be weaning off of red meat, writing letters to Congress or partaking in climate change protests, any attempt to reduce one’s individual carbon footprint makes an immense difference. At the very least, it starts a dialogue. It was student action that gave rise to  Cornell’s historic move to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 and it’s individual action from today’s youth that is spearheading the environmentalism movement. Though our efforts might seem futile, everything we do contributes to bolstering this movement, spurring more discussion and raising awareness.

When an issue is this personal, every action we engage in matters. Every action is worth it.

Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at nnguyen@cornellsun.com. Unfiltered runs every other Monday this semester.