Climate Change & Checkout Charity: Why Bother to Change the World?

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I recently wrote a Tweet that went viral. Yes, thank you, I’m very #blessed. It’s weird because it’s never the things I think should go viral, like, you know, a link to a video I spent hours writing, filming, and editing, but that’s just the way the internet is. Sometimes the only thing people really want is the sort of derivative, obvious observation you wrote while laying on the sofa eating nachos. So for the past few days I’ve had friends ping me to let me know they saw my kind of boring Tweet in a strange place, and I thank them and ask them to give me something as a reward for this virality, and as of yet no one has. Oh, I’m at the top of r/whitepeopletwitter? Thanks, venmo me $20. For white people.

Anyway, this was my Tweet: “I fucking hate grocery store check out screens asking me if I want to donate $20 to end child hunger or whatever. You’re a $10 billion corporation. I’m using a coupon to get 50 cents off a bag of potatos. Why don’t YOU donate $20 to end child hunger”. 

Also I only just noticed I misspelled “potatoes.” Jesus Christ, how could 270,000 people have such low standards?

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, though — not just the concept of grocery stores asking you to support an unspecified charity, but the more general idea of large corporations placing the onus on you, as an individual, to do the right thing and make the world a better place, when they themselves are often the ones responsible for fucking the world up in the first place. Take Safeway, for example, my local grocery store. In 2013, they raised $38.4 million for charities related to breast cancer, prostate cancer, muscular dystrophy, and people with disabilities. That’s a lot of money going to, I’m sure, very good causes. But in fact, it’s not even twice as much money as Safeway paid their CEO Steve Burd ten years earlier — $19.5 million, in a year when Safeway endured a labor strike from farmers who were being underpaid and which led the company to see a fall in profits.

In 2011, Steve got $11.5 million, plus use of a private jet for his personal travel among other perks.

In 2014, Safeway was valued at $9 billion. People, myself included, have trouble truly understanding large numbers without some context. The amount Safeway raised for charity in 2013 was about .4% of their total value. And they didn’t even have to donate that money. They got you to do it, and then they put out press releases bragging about it so you’d feel good about shopping there.

Meanwhile, income inequality is one of the biggest problems the United States is currently facing, and it’s the worst it’s been in the past 50 years. What better way to illustrate that inequality than a CEO who makes $287,485 per hour more than his cashiers? And yeah, in 2013 Steve made $287,500 an hour. You know, assuming he worked 40 hours.

What does income inequality lead to, besides a resurgence in interest in the guillotine? The research shows us it’s not great: higher social inequality correlates with more homicides, more drug use, more health problems, fewer rights for women and minorities, lower life expectancy, and even a breakdown in trust between strangers.

But hey, they got you to give a dollar to a charity you otherwise wouldn’t have supported, right? That makes up for a $9 billion corporation that enables all those other things, eh?

“But Rebecca,” you say, “YOU shop at Safeway! I saw you in the Halloween aisle on November 1st filling a shopping cart with half-priced Russel Stover peanut butter pumpkins.” Alright alright, no need to candy shame me, those things are almost half as good as Reese’s peanut butter cups but they’re basically free on the day after Halloween.

But yes, I live in a society. I require foodstuff to live, and I live in an apartment with no yard so I cannot yet grow my own food and live off the land. Also I can’t keep plants alive. My friend gave me a spider plant for my birthday and it’s already dead two weeks later.

And I don’t just purchase things to survive! I purchase things I desire. And that consumption of things I don’t need, whether it’s food, barely-edible chocolate products, or purple flocked velvet skulls from Target, all contribute to the major ills of society. Income inequality, poor working conditions in developing countries, and of course global warming. I saw this chart the other day that ostensibly comes from a survey of Germans, asking them what actions they take to reduce CO2 and comparing them to the actual benefits of those actions. Apparently a lot of Germans think that not using plastic bags will help CO2 levels, which it doesn’t, but it does help keep plastic garbage out of our oceans so honestly I don’t really care if they don’t know exactly what environmental disaster they’re avoiding by carrying cloth bags to the grocery store.

On the other end of the spectrum, people didn’t seem to think that reducing their meat intake would help all that much, when in fact going vegetarian would result in a reduction of 790 kg of CO2 per person per year, one of the biggest impact options on the chart. There are about 83 million people in Germany, of which about 75 million are meat-eaters, so if all of those people stopped eating meat, they would save about 59,250,000,000 kilograms, or 59 million metric tons. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? I mean…it is, but America’s largest producer of CO2, American Electric Power, saved 63 million metric tons just by switching a few of their coal plants over to natural gas. But that takes money, and so instead of our government pressuring these large corporations which account for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions to simply replace older equipment, install cleaner options, switch to renewable resources, and other relatively simple solutions, we’re putting it back on the individuals. Like, sure, Vistra Energy produced 100 million metric tons of carbon in 2017 but instead of following Illinois’s lead and forcing them to shut down their coal power plants, let’s just convince 75 million Germans to permanently give up bratwurst. Fuck, and I’m a vegetarian! I think that would be great! But it just makes no sense.

If you’re feeling hopeless about individual action after all this, I do have one more recent study to mention. Yes, you, personally, consuming less stuff will only make a small dent in humanity’s total carbon output. But in a way, it’s like voting — one vote doesn’t seem like it means much but if you add it to a bunch of other votes, suddenly it works. If you stop consuming so much, and so do I, and so do our neighbors, eventually corporations will be forced to slow down their supply, and that will be an overall good. Not just for climate change, but for everything.

On the other hand, you don’t need to wait for collective action to occur in order to see the benefits. A recent study from researchers at University of Arizona found that people who buy less stuff tend to be happier. People who keep buying stuff but buy “environmentally friendly” products don’t get the same boost. And that’s great, because not buying something is a million times better than buying a “green” product in most cases. My bike is a million times better than a Tesla. Hell, my old (California emissions-tested) Toyota is better than a new Tesla, because the small amount of gas I use until the thing dies pales in comparison to the output of a factory producing brand new car parts. 

Yes, consumerism is fun. I have definitely impulse bought things I didn’t need in order to get that little jolt of seratonin. But ultimately it’s bad for me and for society, and now I know that people who don’t buy random stuff because they care about the environment tend to be happier. Or, happy people tend to not buy random stuff because they care about the environment. It’s a correlation, not a causation. But either way, there is a takeaway: buying stuff doesn’t ultimately make us happy. That comes from somewhere else. I encourage you to find where it comes from for you. Like maybe it comes from lobbying your governmental representatives into holding carbon monster corporations accountable for their pollution. Just a thought!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. This is, more or less, what the largest grocery store chains here in Australia did, with their milk levy. But without the asking.

    Essentially, they had been destroying the dairy industry for decades with the “dollar milk”: $1/litre. Not nearly enough to pay dairy farmers – the ones who make it possible for us to even have a glass of milk – a living wage.

    Under much sustained pressure, they started charging more: $1.10/litre. With the extra 10c going directly to the farmers (*).

    (*) Scandals ensued as it was discovered that not all of that 10c/litre actually did go directly back to the farmers.

    So, they get to pat themselves on the back for the great job they are doing to support the country’s farmers, when it is actually the country’s poor (who cannot afford to pay a realistic price for brand name milk) paying for it.

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