Can Recycling Save The Planet?

Our changing climate, the extreme predictions for the 21st Century, mass species extinction, ice caps melting… We’ve heard all about it. Ironically, it’s not uncommon to put the responsibility for tackling this global, possibly threat-to-survival menace on the feeble shoulders of the individual: from recycling, through living waste-free, to buying or refusing to purchase certain products. 

But can individual decisions, like recycling, change the course of history and reverse climate change?

 

The Numbers Game

The data along with predictions and the overall emotional (and/or political) luggage that’s attached to the issue of climate change to today raises either goosebumps, indifference, or denial – what we can read on the internet or in any related literature is often so dramatic and incredible that it either scares us or triggers some kind of defence mechanism. 

Yet, regardless of our feelings, science seems to be unanimous on the issue.

And the information can be daunting. Today, carbon dioxide levels are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

Human activities have only amplified the greenhouse effect in the recent years. For the last century our contribution to increasing the amount of greenhouse gases – so particles that absorb and then radiate heat – in the atmosphere has been tremendous, and the possible repercussions herald doom to the Earth we know now.

 

The World On Our Shoulders

Listening to the scientists can really drag us down, as dreams of space exploration and sustainable life seem out of reach. 

In Desert, a long anarchist essay, the anonymous author lists the extreme outcomes and results of global warming: hot deserts in Europe, a new race for land and resources in the warmer north, rising sea levels, mass migration in search of food and shelter, higher risk of governments being ineffective, internal state conflicts, extremism, or firmer authoritarian rule… Among others, that is.

Tricky Task: Some find the idea of saving the world through things like recycling very difficult.
Tricky Task: Some find the idea of saving the world through things like recycling very difficult.

What is still crucial to underline here, is that predicting the actual results of climate change is next to impossible.

We have some data that the scientific community has mostly agreed upon, but the changes are so rapid that our science just can’t catch up, says the author of Desert.

Yet today already can we see the climate changing – from weather anomalies (like the heaviest snow in Madrid in 50 years), dry summers in Europe affecting the crops, or the increasing difficulty of predicting weather – which, for instance, makes hunting harder to plan among hunter-gatherer communities.

The author of Desert is critical towards contemporary political activists, in particular groups focusing on climate change, as these movements – to paraphrase – are building on manufactured hope, alienated from the everyday reality, not believing their words but wanting you to believe. In other words, they miss the point, and the author of Desert tells us to give up on dreams of a global future and try to make do with what we’ve got.

A similar criticism of the leftists is often expressed by a modern philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who, in an interview with the British TV network Channel 4, said that: “We see that we will have to do something.

“The greatest utopia today is – let’s not succumb to utopian dreams, let’s just stick to what it is, a little bit more austerity […] – and somehow we will manage. No we will not.”

Žižek tries to accept and embrace hopelessness of the current times. The modern left is accepting the global capitalist system and is just trying to slightly push it to the left.

But can’t we try to improve the current status quo through individual actions and decisions?

 

How Can We Help?

Time and time again we meditate on the individual decision’s influence on climate change.

A person’s carbon footprint, the choice of means of transportation, recycling… Though some sources and publications stress the importance of one’s lifestyle and conscious decisions – repeating formulas such as ‘the micro dictates the macro’ or the ripple effect – scientific papers debunk this myth, showing “that recent research indicates that climate change has low priority in an individual’s hierarchy of needs.”

So, despite the hopeful mentality, its actual impact is immaterial.

Global lockdowns triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic brought our economy to a standstill and showed that through such systemic and dramatic change we can halt the greenhouse gases emissions and partially tackle climate change.

Yet, this is only temporary, as with the emergence of vaccines we might be seeing the crisis grind to a halt in the nearest future.

The biggest polluters in the world are simultaneously the fastest-growing and prospering economies in the world: China, the United States, and India in the top three.

In the United States most of the pollution comes “from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.”

It’s no news that massive corporations – particularly those prominent in the oil industry – knew about their damaging influence on the planet since the 70s and consciously stopped any progress in combating the issue, as it is no surprise that companies put material profit over human health, as was the case with teflon manufacturers.

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Corporate Responsibility: With the help of corporations, can we make an impact?

What is even more depressing is that our legal systems are incapable of punishing them accordingly.

Recycling, as all individual actions against climate change, have some, yet limited impact on climate change.

Surely they make the issue more conspicuous in local communities or in the media, but let’s face it – it won’t stop climate change.

For recycling to actually make a change it would have to be implemented in a sustainable system whose main aims are not production and consumption.

If all the individual solutions – electric cars, veganism, no-waste lifestyle, and so on – were applied universally, maybe they would change the tides.

But more often than not they, including recycling, aren’t profitable, which makes them inapplicable in our society.

 

The Way Forward?

As Žižek argues in the aforementioned Channel 4 interview, by embracing hopelessness and seeing chaos wreaking havoc on the political right, a new alternative to capitalism will pop out.

A similar hint of optimism is expressed by Mark Fisher at the end of his book Capitalist Realism, whence he says that we’re at year zero again – a fertile ground for new anti-capitalism to come up, not necessarily tied to old traditions and ideologies, which will be a rival rather than a reaction to capital.

Whether a global revolution will happen and save our planet is impossible to tell.

Whether we’ll be able to improve our current system or come up with an alternative to halt the upcoming menace of extinction is – you guessed it – impossible to tell. For now, we don’t know where we’re going and what we should do.

What we can say for certain is that there’s a fair bit of smart people today trying to work on a solution – but if they will succeed, only time will tell.


It’s not only individuals trying to solve climate change issues like recycling. In Europe, one organisation is trying to make a change.

Generation Climate Europe: Representing 20 Million Young Europeans and Tackling Climate Change

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