Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new podcast and documentary take stock of individual choices against the backdrop of immense, looming threats.
On a recent episode of the new podcast “Terrestrial,” Mary and Travis explain that they’ve decided against expanding their family beyond their 100-pound bulldog, Tonka. Travis arrived at the decision after noticing the water level fall near his Las Vegas hometown. Later in the episode, Les Knight chimes in with a resounding echo. Knight’s a substitute teacher, and he likes kids just fine—he just thinks that no one ought to have them. Knight is representing the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which holds that the most benevolent thing we can do for the planet is to let homo sapiens go the way of the dinosaurs. His is a long-range plan: If everyone pledged to halt reproduction, eventually, birth rates would dwindle. Then, there would be a greying generation with no successors. (The group’s website sells bumper stickers bearing the motto, “May we live long and die out.”)
On the podcast, a project of NPR’s KUOW station in Seattle, host Ashley Ahearn drills down into what she describes as “the choices we make in a world we’ve changed.” The show wrestles with climate volatility on its smallest scale, looking at personal decisions. Each interview offers a window into how people make sense of their place in the world, particularly when they perceive the terrain shifting under their feet.
In one episode, Ahearn frames the future as a sort of “climate change choose-your-own-adventure.” The show probes a question that’s difficult to wrangle: In the face of sprawling issues, how much do individual choices matter?
That’s a question my colleagues have tackled through a zoomed-out lens. In a recent CityLab post, Laura Bliss outlined some 250 U.S. mayors’ vow to scale back greenhouse gas emissions even after President Trump yanked the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. “Can cities, by their own strength, push the U.S. to the shore of its climate commitments?” she asked. (The answer, of course, is uncertain, but one report suggests that a coalition could go pretty far toward meeting the onetime nationwide goal.) “Terrestrial” is the latest in a series of cultural artifacts that assume a more micro view, asking what, if anything, our individual behaviors tally up to.
The new documentary Wasted also examines the role of personal choice in planetary destruction, via a feature-length survey of the food waste crisis. Anthony Bourdain—one of the film’s executive producers—is the gloomy doomsayer tasked with introducing viewers to the scale of the waste that accumulates across the global food system. Bourdain punctuates his dialogue with exasperated sighs; he seems to be a reluctant moral arbiter, even though he’s expertly typecast to cajole viewers into being more-conscientious stewards. Early on, he laments, “I don’t know that we even deserve to live, honestly.” Then, later: “I believe it’s okay to scare the living shit out of people.”
There’s plenty of scary fodder in the film. The statistics are sobering: Across the U.S., 40 percent of food—tens of millions of tons—is wasted each year. The bulk of it rots in landfills, where it spews greenhouse gases. Directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye, who cut their teeth on cinematic series like “The Mind of a Chef,” the film examines the staggering scope of the issue. The optics alternate between pastoral (think wind-rippled crop fields) and dystopian. Even the bounty assumes a grotesque quality: Stacked-high shelves feel looming. A spoon squelches bawdily as it roots around in an overstuffed buffet.
The film profiles nonprofits and chefs who are pushing back against wasted food, but the scale of the problem can still feel insurmountable. Faced with frame after frame of good food going bad, it’s easy to share Bourdain’s head-in-hands grimness.
Few would argue that wasting food is good, as Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council explained to me last year. It just doesn’t sit right. “I think the truth is that not wasting food, while it does have the benefit of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of our overall food demand, also has more tangible, in-front-of-you benefits like saving people money and feeling like morally the right thing to do,” she said. “Food waste is not a partisan issue; it’s a human issue.” Digesting the film in a round-table at the Tribeca Film Festival, Bourdain evoked that language, too—but with more expletives.
The enemy isn’t an explicit desire to waste—it’s that the incentive to not waste is often not quite strong enough to overcome the pull toward whatever is most convenient. Plus, people are notoriously bad at gauging their own behavior. When researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future surveyed consumers about their awareness and perceptions of wasted food, 73 percent of respondents claimed to squander less than the average household. “It is clear that respondents as a group are substantially underreporting their waste levels,” the researchers wrote, “and they may also be overreporting their effort levels.” Residential trash audits and even-more-granular surveys are just a few ways that researchers are trying to bring awareness and behavior into neater alignment.
Meanwhile, there are scores of playbooks for behavioral change at the individual level. Gunders recommends strategies including planning meals in advance, purchasing in smaller quantities, and fiddling with the fridge temperature to maximize the shelf life of perishable goods. (They stay freshest at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.) Such changes might not make much of a dent in the global pileup, but they could help the average American family recoup some $1,500 each year. The New York Times rounded up small-scale interventions to combat climate change, too: among them, choosing vegetables over meat and opting to take the bus instead of piloting a private vehicle. Still, even if waste plunges at the consumer level, there are other hurdles along the supply chain. Produce could be left to rot in the field, or go rancid at the supermarket. It could be frittered away in restaurant kitchens without making it to diners’ plates.
“Of course, these individual choices are all small measures,” the Times noted. But, they concluded, “Might as well start now.” That was my takeaway from Bourdain’s grizzled, grumpy narration, too: His thesis seemed to be that we ought to do something, even if only to feel a little less helpless in front of problems that threaten to swallow us up. Individual action feels like a moral victory, or at least an optimistic gesture, an alternative to wringing one’s hands. It’s not nothing—but it’s not enough, either.