- Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have
- Grand Central Publishing (2019)
Tatiana Schlossberg is an environmental journalist based in New York. Her book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, is an investigation into systems we interact with all the time and how they relate to the climate crisis.
From athleisure to electronics to our innocent binging habits, it becomes clear that everything is interrelated. She argues that we need to understand the map if we’re going to make any changes.
The Tyee talked with Schlossberg over the phone to learn more. Here’s our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
The Tyee: Inconspicuous Consumption tells us we’re emitting carbon even when we think we’re not. Are you trying to drive us all into caves of despair?
Tatiana Schlossberg: My goal first and foremost is, you know, caves of despair, but after that I wanted to help people understand the scale of the problem of climate change. So often we hear about opposite ends of the spectrum: a plastic water bottle on one end, and then how we need to be 100 per cent renewable energy in 10 years. I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense to people. It’s this huge global problem, and those are sort of the only two things that we’re told are needed to fix it?
As I learned more, I felt like there was a lot of stuff that had been left out of the conversation that could help people see themselves in the larger story and understand the scope and the shape of the problem. I want to broaden the conversation as well as bring the surprising or hidden things into the light.
Speaking of surprising, before I read the book the internet felt so ethereal, so environmentally innocent, but it’s not.
I was definitely the same way before I wrote the book. And terminology about the Internet encourages that assumption, like “the cloud” and “wireless.” But the Internet is a physical system: the routers and modems in your house, but also fibre optic cables, internet exchange points and data centres all over the world. And all of those things require electricity. So maybe we think of the Internet as just our own computer or our cellphone, but to send and receive data all the time and to be able to look at any website at any moment requires the servers to be on to receive the signal that you want it, and then send it back to you. It’s a very physical, energy-intensive system.
Most of what you cover is stuff most of us don’t know, even though it affects us and we’re part of the systems. Like online shopping — the most we might complain about is the seemingly excessive packaging (which as you report hasn’t really changed since pre-Amazon) — but there’s more to it than just cardboard. Is it the fact that we never see most of the supply chain that lets it all get so out of hand?
I think it’s just that it seems so normal, and the things that encourage more consumption are so convenient. If it weren’t really easy to order things online, I don’t think people would. Or if we had to pay for all of the costs associated, we might think twice. When things are easy, they tend to grow really, really fast. Lots of times the problem is the ways a system is set up in the first place, but it’s also a question of scale. We’re buying and returning more things than we would if we had to go to a store. I think we’re just consuming a little bit more carelessly.
And because we never talk about the impacts — like for example the incredible amounts of water that are polluted to make a pair of jeans, we’re not concerned buying another pair. So, unawareness plus convenience, and the problem gets worse.
One of the goals of this book is that once you know the consequences of your consumption, it makes you think about things a little bit more. I don’t know that it’s possible to solve a problem until you understand it. I’m hoping to give people the information to understand the scope of the problem, and the sorts of things that need to happen to make a difference. I think when we understand how we’re implicated in these systems, and what the consequences are of the behaviours we’re not thinking about, maybe we’ll be a little bit more careful.
I couldn’t help noticing how frequently you raise human rights issues in a book about climate impact. Why are these issues so often interrelated?
I think climate change is a justice issue. In terms of who’s exposed to more pollution and why, American low-income communities and minority communities disproportionately are affected by pollution. And that’s because of decades of discriminatory housing policy that put those people in areas that were less desirable, in part because of pollution. And then if somebody wanted to build a factory, those communities are more powerless, so they maybe can’t fight against the factory being built or a highway being built right where they live. It’s really difficult to separate these issues.
Climate change arises out of inequality, in a way. If you think about what the United States is doing versus what Bangladesh is doing, we’re emitting tons and tons of greenhouse gases; they’re emitting very few, but they will be disproportionately impacted. And also, climate change exacerbates inequality, because it will make it more difficult for people in Bangladesh to live where they live and work where they work.
You also write about the history of colonization and exploitation. Do you see a connection between exploiting people and exploiting physical resources?
An interesting way that that plays out is, for instance, in conversations around air conditioning. There have been efforts to phase out these chemicals that are used as refrigerants, because they have a really intense heat trapping effect, but it’s happening at a time when more people in India can afford air conditioning. And an air conditioner with refrigerants that doesn’t have those problems will be more expensive. So, in the U.S., I can sit in my house with my air conditioner and contribute to climate change, while the global community is saying to somebody in India, “Well, you can’t have the air conditioner because it’s bad for the planet.”
Meanwhile, where they live is getting much hotter and more humid than where I live, but we’re grandfathered in in that way. You can see the effect of these historical relationships where wealth and resources have been taken out of the developing world by colonizers, and now those places are having to deal with the effects of climate change — with the effects of our behaviour — in a stronger and more impactful way than we are.
You touch on externalities a lot, this idea that we’re not actually paying for the cost of what we’re getting — and companies aren’t paying for it either. Are there people talking about starting to account for externalities and pay for them?
Putting a price on carbon is one way to do that. It would take care of a lot of different aspects of pollution that we’re seeing. But externalities are more complicated than just carbon pricing. For example, we think of things made in China as really cheap, but we think that because it’s become so cheap to ship around the world. And that’s happened, as you say, because no one is paying for the problems of ocean acidification caused by bunker fuel or ship scrapping that destroys mangroves, or building ports and all these different things. It’s cheap because nobody’s paying for the ultimate cost of these things. We’re mortgaging that and putting it off to deal with later — or the people who are responsible don’t think of it as their responsibility.
That, to me, is a reason why understanding all these systems is so important, because you see how fast fashion is connected to the shipping industry and the consequences of shipping tons of goods around the world all the time. I think making those connections will help people understand what the externalities are, and maybe factor that into the cost.
Can you expand on the microplastics issue?
Plastic has now been found in Arctic sea ice, Himalayan glaciers, the bottom of the ocean — in every corner of the world. But when we think about ocean plastics for example, we think about the great Pacific garbage patch, or the plastic straw thing. But actually, lots of the plastic that gets into the ocean is in the form of microplastics. It’s really small pieces of plastic — specifically microfibres that come from, in large part, synthetic clothing. It flies off our clothes when we’re wearing them, or when we wash it escapes from our washing machine into wastewater treatment plans, where it either escapes into the water, or settles into the sludge that is sometimes used as fertilizer to grow food where the microplastics can get into our food supply or water systems.
Plastic microfibres account for about 85 per cent of the plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world. Some scientists think it’s maybe the most abundant form of pollution. But we don’t hear about it. It’s much easier to visualize the plastic straw, or the plastic bag in the ocean, or the garbage patch. And those things are environmental problems, but I want people to understand that you have to think about these things as systems.
If you’re told that there’s an easy fix for something, then you should probably think a little bit more carefully about it. Plastic straws for example, account for something like 0.03 per cent of the plastic in the ocean. We have to think about the most effective place to put our energy and resources. And we can’t do that if we don’t understand how all of these things are working together.
Then there’s rayon, which sounds cool at first, but turns out to be pretty awful. There are a few things that are marketed to be sustainable, but when you dig a little are really harmful.
Learning about rayon was really despairing, because I really didn’t know anything about it before. It never occurred to me what it was made of, so to learn that it’s made of wood and can contribute to deforestation of ancient and hardwood forests all over the world was so depressing.
Along the same lines, learning about the wood pellet thing. (Wood pellets are considered a renewable fuel in Europe, causing a switch from coal power to wood power.) Not only is it contributing to deforestation in the American south, but none of the emissions are being accounted for. The pellets produce a ton of emissions and we’re all patting ourselves on the back, when it’s really creating a significant ecological problem.
I get upset about those kinds of bigger systems, like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe that this is the way that it works.” And either nobody’s paying attention, or everybody knows and nobody cares.
Do you see hope going forward?
I think voting is the most important thing that an individual can do. It’s great and it’s important to make changes to your individual behaviour, but the problem is so big. Yes, it’s great if fewer people eat lots of red meat, but we’re probably not going to get seven billion people to eat no red meat without some kind of regulation or something to make that happen.
And collective organizing. Like in the U.S. we’re seeing around the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal, and around the world with Greta Thunberg and the school walkouts. Seeing that kind of collective action that’s demanding more from governments is really crucial and inspiring.
The more people talk and learn about climate change, the more they’re likely to perceive it as a risk and support policies to mitigate climate change. So talking about this stuff with your friends and family and the people you work with is really important. Those actions that maybe inspire bigger collective action are some of the most important things that an individual can do.