“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” – Anne Marie Bonneau.
In just a few short months, many of us have felt our priorities shift dramatically from one crisis – the climate emergency, to another – the coronavirus pandemic. The health and safety of ourselves, our families and local communities is at the forefront of our minds, with sustainable lifestyle habits slipping somewhere tucked away at the back. What’s more, the guilt that we feel for not always making the ‘perfectly ethical’ choice piles onto the existing pandemic-related anxiety, festering away in the monotony of lockdown. This makes it even harder to make positive change where we can.
Now, it’s important to note that the climate crisis hasn’t gone away, and will still be there long after COVID-19 is gone. Of course, there has been some really positive environmental news offering respite from the daily barrage of fearful health and economic headlines. The hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic has healed, marine life is returning to the ocean in droves, and air pollution levels have dropped in cities across the world.
However, we must stay vigilant – environmental gains are not a reason to celebrate a pandemic that has killed over 300,000 people (at the time of writing), and it’s not okay to use language that implies the pandemic is a positive, even if the subsequent lockdown has resulted in some benefits for the natural world. We can only hope that experiencing these side-effects will help governments and citizens prioritise climate action in the ‘new normal’.
Despite all of this, I want to make the case for letting ethical habits slip during this (cliché incoming) unprecedented time.
Without a doubt, during lockdown it can be harder than ever to stick to a routine of zero-waste, vegan and sustainable behaviours. First up, there is the financial side. Millions of people are newly unemployed or taking painful cuts to their pay, making it more difficult to invest in natural, vegan or cruelty-free food, grooming and cleaning products, or items from small independent brands. These conscious consumption habits can be seen as a real luxury at a time where families worldwide are flocking to food banks.
Then of course, there is the single-use plastic issue. Hygiene is naturally a major concern for many of us now when out shopping, so dodging the package-free veggies can present a moral conundrum for even the most enthusiastic eco-warriors. In some supermarkets and takeaways, it’s even prohibited to bring your own shopping bags, food containers or reusable coffee cups, to protect workers and customers from cross-contamination.
All of this can build up as a complex kind of eco-anxiety which paralyses us, but it’s okay to prioritise your mental and physical health at a time of such extreme stress, isolation and grief. Here, I’m giving you permission to let go.
Remember, while some of our ethical habits may have slipped, we have an opportunity to embrace other positive changes during lockdown like never before. Most of us have stopped taking flights, and have drastically reduced how frequently we drive. We’re also reconnecting with nature through the mindful practice gardening, caring for houseplants, and walking, running or cycling outdoors. We’re helping to support our local businesses, rediscovering a love for home-cooked meals, undertaking craft hobbies and learning self-sufficiency skills like sewing and mending our clothes – these are all huge sustainable steps that we’re taking, even if it’s just by accident.
Beyond lockdown, it’s also vital that we take away this pressure of internalising the magnitude of the entire climate crisis. We call ourselves hypocrites for being vegans who fly, for having a sustainable wardrobe but a kitchen full of single-use plastics, for being zero-waste but driving long distances. We berate ourselves for not making enough lifestyle change, forgetting that the real goal is system change – it’s not all on us as individuals. One of the most powerful strides we can make as conscious and engaged citizens is to participate as activists, not just as consumers. Even in lockdown, where our lifestyles are often beyond our control, we can feel empowered by signing petitions, joining virtual campaigns, and donating to causes for social and environmental justice.
Revisiting the quote at the top of this article, remember that just because you may not have the capacity – financially, physically or mentally – to be ‘zero waste’, that doesn’t mean you have to resort to ‘zero action’. Small conscious changes still matter. And even minuscule steps towards sustainability in your life and in your community during a time of great upheaval are so much better than nothing at all.
Mostly, remember that a global health crisis is not an eco-retreat, so it’s ok if sustainability isn’t your number one priority right now. You don’t need to shoulder the burden of guilt (which very much belongs on the shoulders of governments and corporations), along with all the other pressures of this pandemic.
Unclench your jaw, roll back your shoulders and release all that tension in your body and mind – you’re doing everything you can, all things considered. And that, my friend, is enough.
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Cover image by Syda Productions.