I was in Belize, Ambergris Caye, on vacation. The Caribbean Sea lapped against white sand beaches a stone's throw away. I slipped onto a bar seat and ordered a cocktail.
"No straw, please," I said.
The bartender made my drink and slid it across the mahogany counter. "Why no straw?" he asked.
The people around me tensed up. But I was already two drinks in, feeling brazen, and I bulldozed ahead. "Well, plastic doesn't biodegrade for centuries," I replied. "I feel terrible about all the little bits of pieces of plastic ending up in the ocean."
He nodded. "Yeah, I've seen turtles washed ashore with straws stuck up their noses."
His reply hit me like a punch to the gut. I became inflamed. "But there's no one to blame!" I roared. Lifting straws in my companion's glass for emphasis, I cried, "Who's fault is it, really, these straws?"
Someone sitting close by motioned for me to shut up. The person to my right agreed. "Please," he moaned.
I stormed off with my cocktail and finished it on the end of a dock. Crying, I wondered if it was too late. Are we too late? No, seriously, are we too late? I felt like a crazy person.
If you're still with me here, I'm assuming we're on similar pages. When I've talked openly about my grief and shame surrounding our planet's ecological crises, I have mostly received dismissal--aggressive, angered dismissal--like I did at this random bar in Belize. Of course no one wants to hear about turtles suffocating to death because of plastic straws, especially not on vacation.
But that doesn't change the fact that it's a reality. By simply reducing plastic straw and plastic bottle consumption, we may, collectively, save hundreds of pounds of bio-resistant waste from entering the ocean.
So why do I feel like a crazy person for proposing we opt out of plastic straws? What's happening here on a psychological level?
I think it comes down to the basic denial stage of the five steps of grieving. We live in an era where humans' impact on the planet is becoming increasingly evident, and there's a whole lotta emotion wrapped up in seeing how this impact is largely disastrous for our fellow earthlings. So when someone blabbers on about pollution in the ocean, it's triggering for everyone around because the conversation directly conflicts with the brain's defenses of denial.
Once we accept the breadth and scope of our impact, the next stage in the grieving is anger, as seen in my misplaced bravado on the bar stool. Who is to blame? AKA Who can I punch? Do we blame the companies that create the plastic, the consumer that buys it, or the lack of infrastructure in developing countries to deal with the plastic?
It's a power-suck, trying to pinpoint one entity as the scapegoat--especially if the accusation comes to rest fully on the blame-seeker's shoulders, creating enormous amounts of self-loathing. It's equally a power-suck to think of ourselves as "one person and thus insignificant," but we'll return to this later.
Seeing that there's no single person or thing to direct our anger at, rage dissipates into bargaining. For example, with my flight to Belize, I figured the airplane would be flying with or without me. I could vouch to never fly again, embracing--gulp--life without international travel. But I bargained with my psyche: I'll fly to Belize, and in turn I'll donate money to plant trees and promise to bike commute every damn day this summer.
Yet once the hope and promise of bargaining wears off, the fourth and most devastating of the five stages settles in: depression. Oh shit. This is really happening: the ocean is polluted with billions upon billions of plastic bits; climate change is fundamentally altering earth processes; and we are both perpetrator and victim in this reality.
Then, and only then, do we transcend into acceptance. And this stage is why I chose to write this post, knowing topics of environmental dilemmas are the least popular content I create. (BTW: If you're still with me here, thank you, thank you.)
Acceptance, for me, comes on two levels: accepting my role on the planet and accepting what I cannot change.
I accept that I am a powerful person capable of both harm and good. By accepting this, I can be mindful of my impact and try to reduce my plastic consumption, recycle when possible, and say "no thanks" to plastic straws.
More importantly, though, we are powerful people capable of creating widespread good in the world. After feeling pretty bummed out about all the trash washed ashore, I thought, wait a second! I'm sun tanning, for crying out loud. I can do something right now. So I grabbed a trash bag and filled it up. One a day, I decided. I'd fill one bag a day. And in one week, I had cleaned a quarter-mile of beach.
I'm not writing this for someone to give me a gold star or some shit. I'm sharing this because I think many of us are grieving over environmental decay. One straw, one bag, one quarter-mile may not seem like a lot, but it adds up, because, again, we are powerful people capable of good.
We cannot stop other people, much less companies, from creating pollution, thus demanding acceptance of what we cannot change. But we do matter, on individual levels. You already knew this, of course, but if you're like me, the immensity of environmental dilemmas sometimes feels too huge for you to do anything. So I'm reminding myself, as much as you, that we do matter, and that we can make a difference.
Right now, the world needs us to believe in ourselves.
One straw, one bag, one beach: I believe in my power, and I believe in yours, too.