The Amazon is burning. The polar ice caps are melting. Plastic straws equal catastrophe and reusable grocery bags could save us. The earth is getting warmer. The earth is doomed. The human race is doomed. We are all doomed. The nails on our collective coffin are quickly being hammered in.
These are the (dramatic) broad strokes in which I understand climate change, or at least what I understood climate change to be until I read Tatiana Schlossberg’s new book Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don't Know You Have.
In a moment of wanting to better myself (i.e out-smart my friends at our next dinner party), I begged Tatiana Schlossberg’s publisher for a review copy of Inconspicuous Consumption and an interview with the author. When the book arrived I was apprehensive. Did I really want to read a book about our impending demise?
To my surprise, Inconspicuous Consumption enthralled me. Tatiana Schlossberg’s writing is informative, yes, but it’s also as witty and compelling as the author herself. I read her book in one sitting and then told all of my friends to read it too.
As a former environmental reporter for The New York Times (and yes, she is also the granddaughter of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) Tatiana Schlossberg is well versed on the impact of climate change. Her interest in the topic took root in middle school when she first saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and it grew in grad school as she consumed literature on the history of the environment.
“Climate change is a relatively new phenomenon but it's part of this larger phenomenon of human history where we, especially in the United States, push the environment to its limits without regard for the larger consequences. I was really interested in that dynamic and I saw that it wasn't just about nature and earth science but was really about people and culture,” Tatiana Schlossberg said.
As a reporter for the New York Times she covered everything from America’s first offshore wind farm to biological annihilation. With Inconspicuous Consumption, Tatiana Schlossberg explores the ways our individual lifestyles impact and contribute to climate change. You won’t find a to-do list for fixing the environment at the end of the book. Instead, as she says, “what I hope I’ve given you is enough information to see the shape of that big problem, and the context to understand what is needed to solve it.”
I spoke with Tatiana Schlossberg about this “big problem” and what I learned from her is that the story of climate change is really a story about everything. It is a story about the food we (over)eat, the clothing we wear and the votes we cast.
The Section Magazine: As an environmental writer for the New York Times what consequences of climate change did you see firsthand?
Tatiana Schlossberg: I saw how people's attitudes were changing. I wrote a story about [Carlisle], a city in England that had a really bad flooding, and I wrote about how people were planning to go forward and how they were or were not seeing climate change reflected in what had happened to them. That was a really interesting tension for people there. To bring in the science without making people feel that we are lecturing to them and to understand how people will react to this problem as it gets more serious was a really interesting thing to witness firsthand.
What inspired you to write Inconspicuous Consumption?
When I started writing about climate change for the New York Times I canvassed a bunch of my friends and asked what they were interested in reading and what they were having trouble finding information on. A lot of people mentioned that they wanted more information about what they could do or what they were already doing that was maybe not so good. I thought that if I have these questions and my friends have these questions, then other people do too.
I wanted to demystify it and help people understand that climate change is not a story that we can isolate and set apart from everything else. It's deeply embedded in everything. I found that a powerful way to do that is to talk about things that people already do (rather than talking about what things might be like in 2100).
One of the main topics discussed in your book was the impact that the internet has on the environment. What does that impact look like?
I think it is very easy to understand that computers use electricity because we plug them into the wall but we don't think about how the information that's on the internet gets to us.
The way that it gets to us is that its transmitted through data centers (or from servers that are located all over the country or even in your office building or school) and increasingly the information on the internet is located in these big server farms that make up what we call the cloud. The servers run all the time, so If I wake up in the middle of the night and look at Instagram that information is there. Electricity used by the internet is around 1 to 2% of the global total which might not seem that much but what we don’t consider is that as we move forward our demand for data will increase with things like AI, self-driving cars, video streaming and perhaps cryptocurrency. Our data needs are only going to grow and that's going to mean even more demands and even more server farms.
What can individuals do to lessen their internet impact on the environment?
So many of these problems are not going to be solved by individual behavior. It is going to be solved by states having better energy markets where there's more renewable energy or internet companies building their own renewable energy facilities. Having consumers aware of how the internet works is a really powerful way to get people involved and to make some changes.
Your book talks about the impact of the fashion industry. What surprised you the most about the fashion industry's impact on the environment?
I had done a little bit of reporting about the impact of fibers like wool or cotton so I had a little bit of familiarity and I think maybe some people have heard about cotton and water use but the scale of these issues was really amazing to me. Like the fact that it can use up to 2900 gallons of water to dye a single pair of blue jeans was really stunning to me. I didn't know anything about viscose rayon which is made of wood. That might sound eco-friendly but it uses so many chemicals to be produced and a lot of the wood used is responsible for deforestation in places like Indonesia and Malaysia. I never imagined that a silky shirt that I have has something to do with that.
Why isn’t the fashion industry subjected to more scientific scrutiny?
I have some pet theories but I don't know for sure. I think it's an area that is seen as something that women care about and it's not seen as being serious and so I think that has made it seem unworthy of scientific inquiry. Trade deals and globalization have moved production abroad (to [countries] that don’t have great environmental regulations and standards) which makes it difficult to understand the supply chain. I think it also has something to do with our vanity. We want to look good and so that’s made us more resistant to looking deeply [at the impact].
There are a lot of different elements at play but I think it is starting to change. People like Stella McCartney are really showing that it's possible to be sustainable and also make things that look cool on people and can be profitable too.
How can consumers make better choices?
I'm not perfect and I don't want to be in the business of telling people what to do and how to live. What I've tried to do is give as much information as possible that can help people make decisions to promote the things that they care about. We were all born into a world that uses fossil fuels and produces things out of environmentally indifferent ways. Rather than feeling guilty, I think it's more important to feel responsible as a collective and in that way to change how things work. That comes from voting and supporting companies that have good practices or that are at least transparent about stating good intentions to improve.
You found that 30 to 40% of food produced ends up as waste. What cost does this have on the environment?
It means that lots of resources and energy are being used to produce food that nobody eats and there's lots of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production but there's also greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste. If food is in a landfill it emits methane and that's an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas. We are wasting water that we can't really afford to waste and putting more fertilizer or pesticides into the environment in a way that can be harmful to people and wildlife. Not too mention the fact that there are a lot of people that don't have enough to eat so wasting food is very stupid for a lot of different reasons.
I think as we move towards a world where there is going to be 9 to 10 billion people we will have to increase the amount of food produced, we really have to figure out how not to waste it. In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane quotes someone who says that we are trading our ability to live for fossil fuels and what a silly short sighted trade that is. So yes wasting food seems like it's just something going bad in the fridge but obviously it's bigger than that and has more cascading consequences.
I was writing about waste for an article recently for the New York Times and I was talking to a climate food scientist from England and he said that overeating was a form of food waste and that rocked me to my core.
In the introduction of a book you say that as citizens we have the responsibility to put environmentally progressive leaders in office. What do you hope voters consider in terms of candidates stances on climate change?
For any elected official believing in climate change is not enough anymore. This is an urgent problem and we need leadership on the issue. It's been encouraging for me to see most of the presidential candidates have climate plans. I think that's a result of the urgency of the issue and pressure from activists groups and what voters are expecting from candidates.
I think people should look for candidates who are addressing the issue holistically and not isolating it only to energy and electricity production or only to transportation. I'm thinking about how concerns about climate change are embedded in every fiber of our system so it can be really hard to discern the differences and to understand really what people are talking about.
I think Jay Inslee is really impressive and is making sure that we're not only talking about this as an economic issue but we're also talking about it as a justice issue and a health issue [at the time of publication, Jay Inslee is no longer running for President]. I get so frustrated sometimes because they spend a lot of time talking about healthcare in the debates and they’re not talking about climate change. To me that's a huge oversight because air pollution makes things like asthma worse and heat illness can cause kidney disease. Climate will have an impact on our healthcare system so there is an overlap in the solutions proposed. Hopefully people can find a candidate that speaks to all of these issues instead of saying we need electric vehicle charging stations. We need a lot more than that.
I'm constantly reminded how climate change impacts every single system of our life. I started my career as a terrorism researcher and we could see how climate change contributes to radicalization and terrorism.
It’s interesting and I think we so far in the United States have seen climate change as isolated to specific disasters and we're lucky to live in a rich country where most people have access to water but in a lot of other countries things like drought and famine are fueling conflict and I know there are a lot of research and projection from the United Nations and other groups that say climate change is only make those tensions worse.
There's lots of reasons to get to work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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