From the Editor: This personal essay, written by Mark Cameron of Gibsons, BC, Canada, speaks to me in many ways. As the founder and editor-in-chief of a publication dedicated to sustainability, I am acutely aware of every way in which I fail to meet up to the goals necessary to safeguard the our fragile home. It’s comforting, at least, to know I’m not alone in these feelings.
“Mark … shame on you!” I froze, hands looped through the two green plastic bags that sat on the SuperValu checkout. At the end of the counter, one of my spriteliest septuagenarian friends wagged her finger toward the bags as she scolded me loud enough for everyone in the store to hear. “You know where those end up, don’t you?”
“I couldn’t … my bags … COVID—” I looked down at the polyethylene sacks—basically crude oil in a crinkly, stretchy form—and tried to formulate a rational defense for my environmental faux pas. We were in the earliest days of the pandemic, when everyone was scared to touch anything and grocery store protocol wouldn’t let you bag your own groceries.
“You can use a box.” She pointed to a bin full of cardboard boxes in the mall just outside the grocery store. “Or cart them to your car and bag them there.”
“But … I walked.”
Her crestfallen eyes made me feel closer to fifteen than fifty. “There’s always a solution, Mark.”
I picked up the bags and nodded. Then we walked together through the mall, awkwardly discussing our plans for the day. “I’m on dinner duty,” I said as we exited the mall doors and walked across the parking lot under a clear, blue April sky. “You?”
“Baking pie.” She lifted the single carton of whipping cream in her hand. “Just had to pick up this one missing ingredient.” Then she jingled the keys in her other hand and hustled off to her car. “Use a box next time, young man.”
Walking the three blocks from the mall to my townhouse, the overstuffed bags cut off the circulation in my hands. I stewed about the lecture I’d received from my hypocritical friend. Never mind that I’d been diligent about shopping with reusable bags prior to the pandemic, or that I’d stacked heaps of runaway fruit on the checkout to avoid using produce bags. Never mind that I’d asked the clerk to overpack two bags instead of using more. Never mind that I had moved to the urban core of our town so that I could walk to pick up my groceries, or that I chose not to own a car for the past four years. Never mind that every single person in that SuperValu store had their own H-factor. My reputation as an environmentalist—at least in the eyes of one eco-warrior and a few dozen fellow customers—had been dealt a heavy blow.
I first heard the term “H-factor” almost a decade ago, when a fellow parent mentioned it during a homeschoolers’ tour of the Iris Griffith Nature Centre—an off-grid environmental education facility nestled in a rainforest on Canada’s west coast. “Everyone is a hypocrite,” he’d said while staring at a display about the average person’s environmental footprint. “It’s just a matter of how big your H-factor is.”
I recall wincing at the sight of the 8-cylinder camper van my family had used to reach the centre. At the time, it was our only vehicle. My wife and I had bought the van to live out a shared dream—taking our two young kids on a lengthy road trip across North America—with the intention of selling it upon our return. But we’d grown quite fond of our gas-guzzling bubble-top camper, so we’d sold our Honda Civic instead, convincing ourselves that we would use the van sparingly. In fact, we had fallen into driving it far more than planned—for groceries; for visiting friends; for quick trips to our local ice cream parlour. As another parent pointed out during our H-factor discussion, the van was actually a small-footprint home during our travels. But when we used it to buy ice cream, we might as well have been driving with an “I Love the Oil Sands” bumper sticker.
Environmentalism is a complex puzzle that sometimes feels like a giant game of Whack-a-Mole. Every decision we make has consequences. Whenever I cast a resentful glare at the muddy, barren construction site behind my home—where a lush forest existed only three years ago—I have to remind myself that my own townhouse complex was once a rainforest, too. When I drive in my newly purchased “COVID car” to hike at Cliff Gilker Park, I recognize the irony of my attempt to be at one with nature. And every time I order a takeout meal, I cringe at the bin full of single-use plastics my culinary laziness creates.
Even so-called sustainable products come with environmental downsides. Video conferencing, which is applauded for driving significant reductions in business travel, is powered by vast amounts of energy—much of which is anything but “clean.” In his recent book, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society, Citizen Lab director Ronald J. Deibert states: “One study suggests that the world’s communication ecosystem currently consumes approximately 7 percent of global electricity, a number that could increase to as much as 21 percent by 2030” (Deibert 233).
Beyond energy use, our collective lust for new technology feeds a growing heap of e-waste. When I drop off used electronics at the recycling depot, I’d like to think they will be magically converted into useful raw materials. But just as you can’t turn toast back into bread, there is no easy way to revert many products to the elements from which they were made. And speaking of what things are made of, I would be remiss to ignore electric cars, each of which features thousands of battery cells comprising roughly ten kilograms of the rare-earth mineral known as lithium.
Batteries—specifically the resources used to create them and the waste they produce—are probably the most talked about downsides of electric transportation. But lest we forget how most of those batteries are charged: using non-renewable energy, such as coal or natural gas; or renewable but environmentally devastating sources, like nuclear power and hydroelectricity. Even solar panels, the darlings of green charging technology, are created by mining rare-earth elements and forging them together using immense amounts of—you guessed it—energy. Then there’s the solar panel life cycle—about 25 years—and what to do with panels once they reach the end of their productive lives. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that 1.7 million tonnes of solar panel waste will be generated by 2030 (Sica et al 2942).
Who doesn’t want to own an electric car that drives hundreds of miles between charges? Or better yet, a charge-as-you-go option that lets you drive in perpetuity? I too dream of rapturous road trips—sun-soaked, solar-fuelled adventures—perhaps even an electric camper van that lets me drive for hours without looking at a fuel gauge. I believe it is critically important, and possible, to move away from burning fossil fuels; to leverage natural, renewable resources for transportation, heating, communications and more. But invention is only part of the solution; consumption—that is, the need to curb consumption—is often ignored during discussions about environmental progress.
We humans are industrious enough to recycle and reuse many of the products we create, but are we motivated enough to reduce consumption in a society that worships convenience, independence, and individuality? Are we capable of sharing resources—cars, office space, housing, tools—if sharing requires us to give up a bit of our autonomy, or to “waste” a bit of our precious time? Having invested significant effort into local initiatives for car-sharing, co-working, and communal living, I know that it is very difficult to compel someone to give up a luxury to which they have become accustomed. In part, I believe that we have allowed the lines between wants and needs to blur into a stew of norms and peculiarities. Sustainable behaviours that buck societal norms—like car-sharing, thrift store shopping, co-working, or sharing a single cell phone between a whole family—may be viewed as admirable, but they are still exceptions in a world where everyone is expected to own at least one of everything.
It’s not that most people aren’t open to the result of change; it’s that we don’t want to do the work to get there. Fair enough. Change is hard, and inertia feels easy. Who has time to reduce their environmental footprint when there are jobs to do; courses to attend; houses to maintain; partners and friends to support; kids to raise?
When I walked in the door of my townhouse following my SuperValu debacle, I set my groceries on the counter and ranted to my wife about plastic bags and whipping cream and H-factors; about how hard it is to be an environmental steward in this priority-challenged consumerist world; about how silly I felt being talked down to for such a minor transgression.
She calmly waited for me to finish, then said, “She’s frustrated, too, and she knows you care. Challenging you was her way of making some small difference in the world.”
I don’t recall exactly how I responded, but I’m sure it involved a deflated sigh. She was right, as usual. Her being right didn’t make me wrong, but it did make me think—about what I could do to avoid plastic bags next time I shopped; about those extra drives to walk at my favourite park; about remembering to turn the heat down at night; about continuing to try, even when trying feels futile.
We all have an H-factor, but knowing that others struggle with their own hypocrisy doesn’t make it less important to lead a sustainable life. Nor does understanding the downside of actions we take with the best of intentions. We must use these challenges as motivation to educate ourselves on the full impact of decisions we make, and to do everything we can to reduce, reuse, and recycle—in that order. Futility will not produce solutions to the global climate crisis, but collective action might.
Collective action is nothing more than a group of people coming together to achieve a common goal—such as: building a community garden or a shared composting bin; hosting a repair café to help people extend the lives of household appliances; forming a community car co-operative or a co-working office; founding a company that develops cleaner technology; or canvassing for a political candidate with a green platform. Even hosting a discussion with a few neighbours can lead to everyday actions that leave this planet better than we found it.
As embarrassing as my grocery bag experience was, it was a great reminder that individual actions, when multiplied by billions of people, have a massive impact on our environment—for better or worse. It was a great reminder that I must do what I can to reduce my own H-factor, no matter what anybody else is, or is not, doing. And it was a great reminder that, as Greta Thunberg says, “No one is too small to make a difference.”
Deibert, Ronald. Reset: Reclaiming Social Media for Civil Society. House of Anansi Press, 2020.
Sica, Daniela, et al. “Management of End-of-Life Photovoltaic Panels as a Step towards a Circular Economy.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, vol. 82, 2018, pp. 2934–2945., doi:10.1016/j.rser.2017.10.039.
About The Author
Mark Cameron is a novelist, blogger, book designer and Creative Writing student living in a small town on Canada’s west coast. Mark is passionate about reducing consumption and promoting the sharing economy. Mark can be found at @markofwords on most social media platforms, or at markofwords.com