Green Movement: What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

Once again, a survey shows how big business has co-opted us.

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Get'em while they're young!
You've got to be carefully taught.

 Ariel Skelley/ Getty Image

A recent survey conducted for Change Incorporated (owned by Vice Media Group) finds, once again, that the single most important thing you can do in the world to save the planet is: RECYCLING!

The survey polled 9,000 people in the United Kingdom, United States, India, Denmark, and Spain, asking which measures people can take to fight climate change. Participants were asked to list in order of importance options including "Reducing my meat intake," "Buying locally," "reducing personal food waste," "Reducing buying ‘fast fashion’ clothes," "Holidaying in my home country," "Avoiding plastic packaging," "Recycling responsibly," "Walking or taking the bus instead of driving," and "Taking a train instead of flying."

Priorities in survey
Priorities in survey. Change Incorporated

The top two were recycling (79.9%!!!) and avoiding plastic packaging, which do have some impact on carbon emissions but nothing even close to driving less, giving up meat, or not flying. The Change Incorporated people point out how crazy this is, noting that "Taking a train instead of flying has consistently been one of the ways that scientists have preached for highly reducing environmental impacts" and "The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”

generational opportunities
Generational opportunities. Change Incorporated 

There were lots of little chicken nuggets of information in the survey, including showing once again everyone self-identifies, picking the answers that fit their lifestyle. So boomers eat more meat and therefore don't think it's bad. And everyone downplays the impact of their driving. But the major takeaway from the survey is that people are ultimately clueless about what's important. As Friends of the Earth's Aaron Kiely notes,

This survey suggests that there are a few big polluting industries which are flying under the radar when it comes to public awareness. People need to know who the major players are in carbon emissions so that they understand what part they can have in pushing the big polluting industries to change, whether that’s through avoiding fast fashion, eating a more plant-based diet, or reducing their flying.

All of which Treehugger and every other green site on earth have been saying for years. So why is this happening? Let's have a closer look at why the top two items are recycling and reducing waste.

actions to save world
Actions people can take for a better environment.  The Living Standard

This is not the first time that a survey has sent me running out of the room screaming. When the US Green Building Council came up with the same thing in their survey I noted:

Really, one can only marvel at this, at how successful industry has been at making the world safe for single-use products. And how badly we have failed in promoting green space, green building, and of course, the urgency of the climate crisis.

I have been calling recycling "a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America. Recycling is simply the transfer of producer responsibility for what they produce to the taxpayer who has to pick it up and take it away." It was invented because what I have called the convenience industrial complex depends on a linear economy of "take-make-waste." I wrote:

Linear is more profitable because someone else, often the government, picks up part of the tab. Now, the drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être.

Somebody has to pick it all up and deal with that waste, and it might as well be us, convinced as we are that it is the most virtuous thing we can do in our lives. Look at how they have succeeded, getting 79.9% of people around the world convinced that it's actually the most important thing we can do for our planet. What a remarkable record.

bird with stomach full of stuff
Bird on beach.  CC 2.0 US Fish and Wildlife Service/ Chris Jordan

Then there is the close second, plastic waste at 76.6% This is, of course, closely related to the first; it's mostly the disposable single-use plastics that don't get picked up and recycled, either because people don't bother, they are in a country or where there is no recycling, or it just leaked through the system. It's a problem, but is it a big one? The Change Incorporated people question it, noting that "In an editorial piece for Marine Policy, conservationists Richard Stafford and Peter Jones say climate change and overfishing are both greater threats to oceans than plastic pollution."

The linear system
the largely linear system. CC2.0 Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The industry is getting ahead of this issue by promoting the circular economy, which is really just an elaborate form of recycling. The reason plastic waste is number two is because number one has essentially failed, and everyone can see it. But nobody wants to do the hard thing, which is to just stop using so much single-use plastic. That wouldn't be convenient. They will worry instead about waste because someone else isn't picking it up.

who cares?
Who cares?.  Change Incorporated

That's why, among the 58% of Americans who actually do GAF, recycling and waste rate so high. It's not hard, it doesn't cost you anything, and if you worry about waste, then you carefully recycle your Starbucks cup and your plastic water bottle. None of it is your fault, you are doing your job. That's exactly what the petrochemical and packaging industries have trained you to do.

This is why these surveys are so depressing; we have been banging our heads against the wall for years, as has everyone else in the green movement, about transportation, building, diet, and fossil fuels, while the petrochemical industries have convinced us that two most important things in the world are to pick up their plastic crap. Talk about a failure to communicate.

Read the whole aggravating report here.