Caroline O'Donoghue: Who am I, with my tote bag, to even think I can change anything

— I met a group of boys in their early 20s who dedicated their every working day to replanting the coral reef. They did not dither, or blither, or make excuses.
Caroline O'Donoghue: Who am I, with my tote bag, to even think I can change anything

Every so often, my dog gets stuck on something that we call a brain loop. It’s incredible to watch. If she were a person it would be easily diagnosed as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. She will tap my leg, then sniff the floor, then walk around in a circle. Then tap my leg, then sniff the floor, then walk around in a circle. She will do it, over and over, simultaneously soothing herself and working herself up, both anxious and methodical, on and on forever until someone interrupts her.

Today is the Irish Examiner’s sustainability issue, and there is nothing more infinitely sustainable than my brain, looping around and around and around on the subject of sustainability.

It starts easy. I think about the small things that I can achieve, without too much discomfort. Things that help the planet. Or rather, things I have been told help the planet. I take a tote bag to the shops. I eat red meat rarely, and only as a treat. I buy most of my clothes second-hand. I make serious attempts to avoid fast fashion. I use this information, these little nuggets of eco credibility, as tokens to soothe myself with. I have very little sense of how they actually impact my carbon footprint, but I doddle along, labouring under the false assumption that I am ‘doing my best’. And then I talk to a vegan. I realise that they are doing more than me. I remind myself it is not a competition, and we are all doing our bit. Except that it is a competition, it is the most important one of all, and the winner gets to keep the planet and rests assured that their grandchildren will not have mushrooms growing out of their faces.

Once I have soothed myself on this particular bit of nonsense, I invariably walk into a high-street fashion chain outlet while waiting for a bus. I pick through the clothes, and think, with my sensible 30-something head, 'these clothes are not good, and they are all trend pieces, all responding to whatever Netflix show is big right now, whatever legging is trending on TikTok'. And then I think of all the Netflix shows, and all the TikToks, and trend leggings that have been and gone, and how all these leggings end up in a landfill somewhere, and how the dye that coloured them is still flowing in a river somewhere, changing the pigment on children’s skin. And then I realise that the leggings are just a pimple on a pig’s arsehole, when you think about China Coal, and Exxon, and BP.

BP incidentally, created the term “carbon footprint” in 2004 — making pollution seem like everyone’s problem, when it was, in fact, disproportionately their problem.

And oddly, even though this news is objectively terrible, there is something soothing about how unbelievably useless I am made to feel by these revelations about global pollution. Who am I, with my tote bag, to even think I can change anything, when Greta Thunberg is working her little fingers to the bone on behalf of the planet, and the best the global population can do in return is to turn her into a media sensation. To equally lionise and victimise her, and make children’s books about her, but not actually give her anything she wants, which is a planet she can grow old on.

I turn these facts around and around; I tap a leg, sniff the floor, walk around in a circle. I am reassuring no one but myself. I am doing the thing that so many of us do: I convince myself that worrying about something is the same as making active changes. I am convinced that all moral dilemmas can be bought and paid for with my own mental pound of flesh. That, if I am anxious about something, it must mean that I am good enough to care. Smart enough to know. Increasingly I wonder whether anxiety is both the scourge of my generation, as well as a status indicator. If you’re anxious, it means that you’re clever. If you’re anxious, it means you’ve seen the news. If you’re anxious, it means that you are wondering whether buying organic cotton is good or bad, then you must have at least enough money to buy organic cotton.

I was once in Tahiti, where I met a group of boys in their early 20s who dedicated their every working day to replanting the coral reef. I spent all day with them, as part of a piece I was writing, as they explained to me that coral was the basis of all sea life, that it was a living breathing thing, and that without it the oceans would die, and we would die along with them. Every day they went out and individually planted new pieces of pink and purple coral, each piece sponsored by a charity donor. They have half a million followers on Instagram (check them out @coralgardeners) and Jason Momoa is one of their biggest fans. They were concerned, and active, and hopeful. They were not fretting. They did not dither, or blither, or make excuses. At the end of the day, they hopped on a boat, and went to another island to party. They were so happy and light, their pact with the planet made, safe in the knowledge they were doing what they could.

My boyfriend, meanwhile, has meetings with the Extinction Rebellion people a lot. Contrary to popular belief, most of them work in marketing and advertising. They are almost all white-collar workers, tired of having the same tote bag discussion with themselves, tired of the brain loop. Realising that collective action is not just the only thing that works, but is the only thing that’s sane.

I don’t think individual thoughts or decisions are enough anymore. Not just that they are not good for sustainability; but that they are not sustainable, period.

Anxiously chasing your own tail gets you nowhere, and it makes you hate yourself, and the more you hate yourself, the less likely you are to believe you can create change. You need groups. Ultimately, the only way to combat our fear of the dying planet, is to first overcome our fear of each other.

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