A few weeks ago, I was explaining my passion for conservation agriculture and the effects of the palm oil industry to one of my peers, and she responded with “Okay, but all industries are bad.” I was initially disheartened and insulted, as my interest in the palm oil industry dates back to when I was in middle school and inspired my passion for environmentalism. However, after further pondering, I realized that it is a fair point.
Why do I invest my time and energy into changing one detrimental industry when there are innumerable others? Why do I care in the first place when my individual actions are unlikely to make a tangible difference?
Growing up — like most kids — I had a naively optimistic, black-and-white view of the world. I believed that with my enthusiasm and passion for environmental issues, I could resolve any and every problem that perpetuates social and environmental injustices. While my commitment to environmentalism remains intact, I would be lying if I said that it has never wavered or that I never think about how easy it could be to find a different passion. As we grow and mature, we naturally develop a more nuanced understanding of the world and — in my case — an understanding of the complex political, social and economic factors that inform environmental issues.
My nihilistic perspectives on climate change and sustainability have most notably manifested in my experience as a vegan for the past seven years. A common reputation of people who eat a vegan or plant-based diet is that we are judgmental of others and have a superiority complex, and frankly, in my experience, it is somewhat true. At the age of 14, I cut out all animal products from my diet after watching documentaries and reading articles about their drastic environmental impacts. I held the judgment that every person must become vegan in order to effectively address climate change, and those who don’t must not care about environmental issues. This perspective has been entirely upended over the past several years.
I now hold the belief that this close-minded judgment of others is an oversimplification of environmental issues and the world at large. Environmental advocacy would be much simpler if ceasing the production of animal products alone would end climate change. The reality is that not only is it illogical to presume that all people have the ability or means to eat a plant-based diet, but there are other significant contributors to climate change. This understanding subsequently brings into question, why am I still vegan?
After seven years of being vegan, composting and striving for an overall sustainable lifestyle, there is no evidence that my individual actions make a difference. I still see the same discouraging research and news reports every day regarding the progression of climate change and the unjust effects on marginalized communities. This is certainly not going to change any time soon, so out of necessity, I just find ways to cope with this frustration and discouragement.
During periods of burnout, I reframe my perspective and focus on the privilege of my position in the environmental movement. As nihilism threatens to dissuade me from my commitment to environmental justice and policy change, I remind myself of the fact that having the option to simply disengage and not care about climate change is an extreme privilege. If I decide to stop reading the news or change my career plans, my life will go on relatively unchanged — meanwhile many people do not have this option.
For many populations around the globe, climate change is an inescapable reality, and it is stripping them of their basic rights to clean air, water and other basic essentials. This serves as a reminder that I have a personal responsibility to act on my beliefs and values and to take advantage of my position of privilege no matter the outcome.
By sharing my personal experiences and perspectives on environmental nihilism, I in no way strive to convince you to go vegan, zero waste or make any other restrictive lifestyle changes. Simply remember what is important to you and what changes you want to see in the world, and don’t let nihilistic sentiments get in your way as you contribute to social, political or environmental issues through any means possible.