Climate Change Trying to Devour My Climate Anxiety
Even though I’ve learned I can’t always consume everything, it doesn’t stop me from trying.
The winter before the pandemic, after my fall-semester grades have been entered, Kelsey and I scamper around our duplex, packing for a three-week trip from Tallahassee to the Midwest so we can see our families for the holidays. It’s a laborious annual drive that involves a fifteen-hour car ride in each direction plus a four-hour drive from Illinois to Michigan in the middle, our anxious dog loopy on meds in the back seat panting the whole way. Kelsey is the organized one and makes sure we don’t forget anything. Meanwhile, I excel at scarfing down any food and drinks that will go bad during our time away. While she finishes up work in our home office, I thinly chop two bunches of wilting curly kale and mix the shreds in a large bowl with the remainder of a tub of soon-to-expire cream cheese. Once it’s reached the consistency of a thick salad, I make sure Kelsey isn’t on a call and carry the concoction into the other room to show her. With a smirk, I place it on her desk like a present.
“That’s disgusting,” she says, visibly repulsed.
I laugh. “It’s not too bad, honestly.”
She shoos me away to finish my lunch out of sight. After the bowl is empty, there’s soft fruit to gnash, a butt of stale bread to toast, leftovers I refuse to let wind up in a landfill. Before we leave, my goal is that our fridge will be empty except for the door full of condiments, wiped clean, and the only appliance still plugged in.
When I try to pinpoint the moment my food anxiety veered from casual to acute, this is the memory to which I most often return. Since that winter, and through several fridge-clearing moves, I’ve eaten dozens of makeshift meals amalgamated from ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away. I combine the rotting excess with pantry staples and shove down the questionable results, even if it tastes terrible or leaves me fatigued. According to my flawed thought process, finishing my food means all the labor and resources that went into making it won’t have been for nothing. The average American carbon footprint is not the highest in the world, but it’s up there, and I want to do whatever I can to reduce mine. Kelsey and I try to only buy what we’re certain we’ll use, a habit that’s been difficult to develop given our Midwestern upbringings. Still, like anybody else, we occasionally miscalculate. But even though I’ve learned I can’t always consume everything, it doesn’t stop me from trying.
My climate and food anxiety have changed the way I socialize, the way I shop, and the way I eat—and I can tell it’s been concerning a number of people close to me. I maintain a plant-based diet for environmental reasons, but the Midwesterner in me is terrified of inconveniencing friends and family, so I eat meat if that’s what’s been prepared by others while I’m visiting or staying in their home. My in-laws kindly refer to me as “the garbage disposal.”
My climate and food anxiety have changed the way I socialize, the way I shop, and the way I eat.
I’m not new to this kind of consumption either. In college, over summer breaks, I used to make a half-hour drive to my roommate’s parents’ house for Leftover Tuesdays, a weekly tradition to eat all the unfinished meals and orphan side dishes they were going to throw away before garbage day. Back then, it wasn’t about the environmental cost of food waste as much as me trying to take full advantage of the cheap and plentiful caloric intake. I would eat three hefty plates and take boxes home. My mantra at the time: Never turn down a free meal.
Today, when I’m sitting at the dining table, my mantra is slightly different: If you’re going to throw that away, pass it over here. At home, I can reduce and compost food waste to minimize my worry, but in most public spaces I ’ ve found composting isn ’ t an available option. I find pride in this habit even though it’s illogical, maybe even a little inconsiderate. It forces those around me to recognize what they’re wasting, and that’s not exactly polite conversation. Kelsey has patiently pointed out the irrationality of this routine several times, but it’s hard for me to stop cold turkey, because my anxiety is assuaged whenever I prevent food from getting tossed at the end of a meal.
I texted a poet friend recently about my climate anxiety, and his response was direct and unsympathetic: You’re still eating those avocados though . When I was a kid, the only time I remember eating avocados was on a trip to visit family in San Diego. They felt like something I would never find back in Michigan. I fell in love with guacamole. Like a good millennial, I admit that I enjoy avocado toast. Kelsey loves it. I’m also a predictable coffee snob, prone to buying pricey third-wave whole beans that I later grind at home. Recently, we have both fallen for the fresh-juice craze, even though a small bottle costs nine dollars at our local spot. I am a sucker for vibrant, murky liquids the color of beets or carrots or pineapple.
There’s no doubt these habits are expensive. But instead of only worrying about the dollar amount, I have been attempting to reconsider our grocery list in terms of the environmental cost. The financial myth of avocado toast versus mortgage was debunked long ago , but the environmental impact of trendy health foods gets fewer splashy headlines than how much these habits set back our wallets. Avocados, for example, are now a monoculture in many parts of the world, meaning they are the sole crop in a given area to increase efficiency and meet demand. But that means they also harm biodiversity, place the long-term viability of soil at risk, and contribute to deforestation. Avocados use an abundance of water and require—especially for most Americans—the environmental toll of being shipped from elsewhere. In Michoacán, Mexico, one of the largest avocado-producing areas in the world, the consequences of climate change are already immediate and worsening. But the popular messaging around avocados remains mixed. They are omnipresent and in high demand. Avocados have become a source of pedestrian joy, and to consume them—on toast or otherwise—is in many ways a symbolic fuck you to the assumed economic privilege and security granted to an older generation and denied ours. They are a quotidian luxury I can savor regardless of whether or not I’ll ever be able to procure a mortgage.
And even though Americans are generally eating out more, it doesn’t create as much waste as the extra food we purchase to consume at home. The average American household throws away hundreds of dollars in food each year. ReFED, a national nonprofit providing data on food loss and waste, reported 54.2 million tons of food waste in the United States in 2019, the largest contributor being residential: 21.1 million tons (38.9 percent). I am hesitant to ever place blame on individuals rather than malicious and exploitative capitalist systems, but in this case, changing our collective mindset toward our grocery carts—at least those who have the resources to do so—could offer an opportunity for marginal, but still significant, change.
I think back to all the privileged midwestern homes I’ve meandered through in my life, the ubiquitous second fridge in the garage full of forgotten leftovers and moldy produce. I remember basement storage rooms glutted with high stacks of canned goods and bottled drinks and boxes of cereal and oatmeal. I am reminded of the times I’ve heard friends say it’s not worth saving the remnants of whatever they’ve prepared for dinner because it won’t make good leftovers.
My concern over excess can only come from a certain amount of privilege, having orbited my whole life with and around inherent food security. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 10 percent of American households experience food insecurity despite the massive amounts of waste created every year. Those leftovers add up, but not for everyone. Growing up in a suburb, I was used to walking into my house and friends’ houses knowing there were plenty of options: snacks, fresh fruit, juices and sodas, frozen foods galore. We smashed Oreos and microwavable taquitos, but also cheese and crackers and sandwiches stacked high with lunch meat and fresh lettuce, and we washed everything down with Capri Sun or Gatorade or bountiful cans of every variety of pop. It was never a question whether an extra person was welcome to stay for dinner; there was always enough to go around. We never asked if there was food to eat, but rather which foods and how much—a multitude of options both healthy and unhealthy alike, with little thought as to where it would go if it wasn’t finished.
In the essay “ Leftovers ” by Jax Connelly (which, for transparency, I edited), the author notes that “in developing countries, forty percent of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels; in industrialized countries, the same proportion occurs at retail and consumer levels. The former is a function of infrastructure, whereas the latter is a function of human shortcomings: irresponsibility, carelessness.” How do we efficiently and dramatically change a culture of waste? What would it take for excess to fall out of fashion? When will we realize the constant expectation of inventory and indulgence is not-so-slowly killing us?
What haunts me most is knowing that a rapid shift in my consumption habits is not necessarily that difficult; it’s just extremely inconvenient. I continue to work on it every day. I try to avoid most foods with a large carbon footprint. I shop for groceries with the goal of minimal packaging and plastic. I use reusable bags for all my produce. But if I were more ambitious, I could refuse to ever purchase another single-use plastic cup for coffee or beer. I could sell my car and commute everywhere by bike or bus or train. These choices are only available to me because I have the security and access to make them happen. The only reason I haven’t yet gone more extreme is a lack of fortitude. It’s easy to write off individual responsibility because one person can only do so much, and overvaluing my own miniscule contributions instead of demanding systemic overhauls is, admittedly, part of the problem. I wrote a portion of this essay at a trendy downtown coffeehouse, a flimsy cardboard mug next to my laptop holding my americano, but I was only one of hundreds of customers there on any given day, and significant change happens much further up the supply chain.
How do we efficiently and dramatically change a culture of waste? What would it take for excess to fall out of fashion?
The Earth Day organization notes that global demand for single-use plastics has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Earth Day, in the US alone Americans throw away more than 50 billion coffee cups each year. That number is unsurprising when it seems every Starbucks I pass is bustling, when I walk around any city center and see trash cans and recycle bins erupting with shiny clear containers, the strays rolling around in the street, their orbed lids glistening in the sun, knowing that countless more must be strewn across parked cars, offices, and homes. This is all without even taking into account the environmental impact of the coffee itself, without mentioning ethical agriculture, transportation emissions, the immense harm caused to wildlife, or living wages for farmers, truck drivers, and baristas. I drink that fucking cold brew to avoid a caffeine headache and deposit the container in the nearest recycle bin; then the waste is gone from my life forever.
Only a few weeks ago, at a bachelor party outside Austin, I did my best to ignore the abundant food waste and unrecycled beer cans we left behind. I filled my plate with meat all weekend—rib eye steaks slathered in butter and rosemary, ribs, barbecue, chicken meatballs—having done the math when we arrived and knowing well that there was way too much for my friends to finish without me. Even with my help, most of the meatballs were plopped in the waste bin minutes before we left the Airbnb. At the docks, we were told the lake we’d been swimming and kayaking in all weekend was down thirty feet over the past two years. According to Water Data for Texas, it is only about 53.8 percent full today. We made a game of throwing beers out into the muddy water and swam out to them where they bobbed up and down like little alcoholic buoys. One of the guys at the party doesn’t drink, so I tossed an A&W root beer out into the depths for him, which immediately sank. We googled it. Apparently, soda doesn’t float. Like that, a silly but harmful error I can’t take back. It was a careless mistake that would bother me long past the flight home.
I can’t balance my feelings about individual accountability with the logical admission that I could make every thoughtful environmental decision for the rest of my life and it likely wouldn’t even matter. Blame the big guys, everyone tells me: politicians, big oil, the meat industry, airlines. Yet there’s a part of me that feels complicit in every step of the system. I don’t want to hold on to guilt for the infinite things I can’t control, but the root of my anxiety is not having the resolve to frequently and without hesitation say no, even if that no is just a drop in the bucket. My contributions certainly look useless when the camera pans to the devastation being inflicted every second by major corporations and other big polluters, but I’m not sure that’s even the point, at least for me. Instead, my small personal adjustments are about focusing on my self-control and not allowing myself to be willed by others into conveniences. It’s a lifelong struggle between doing what’s easy and nonconfrontational and doing what I think is right.
I know—both in these words and in general—that I’m already insufferable. “I worry that if you had it your way, you’d just sit in a room and do nothing,” Kelsey confesses, after I tell her I’m going to be more aware about my consumption habits. “You need to remember how to have fun,” she sighs. As usual, she is right, but it’s difficult for me not to get defensive. I ask myself every day: What personal capitulations will I make today? What am I willing to devour?