Shortly before non-essential workers across the United States took to their homes to flatten the curve of Covid-19, I talked to the writer Tatiana Schlossberg about her new book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. With the virus already swirling around and Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future gatherings already moved online, we inevitably began our conversation wondering how Covid-19 might impact the climate movement. Schlossberg, smart and rooted in fact, mused that the virus is related to climate change in terms of its tax on our healthcare system and public health in general, plus what it has done to air travel, emissions, and remote working. Global pandemics and economic recession are clearly not a climate crisis solution, but maybe some part of this horrifying experience can eventually serve as a model. “Coronavirus is an immediate and serious concern. Climate change is a slower moving problem. Don’t suggest we can’t have both. They all need to be part of the same conversation,” she said.
When seeking solutions for the climate crisis, fuel and food are top of mind. Technology? Not so much. But technology is the first of four topics, including fuel, food, and fashion, that Schlossberg addresses in Inconspicuous Consumption. Has technology ever felt more critical? Zoom, Slack, FaceTime, and all of the social media platforms some of us had collectively been swearing off are now our sole and beloved lifelines during a global pandemic. Just weeks ago, in another lifetime, I wanted to toss my teen’s cellphone off a cliff and was struggling personally to stay offline nights and weekends.
Inconspicuous Consumption is an exploration of wasteful things we all do mindlessly. Schlossberg starts with tech as the perfect example. “I was never forced to think about how it works and if it has any kind of environmental impact,” she explained. So she systematically researched the cloud system and how it wires the whole country and the world, snaking under our oceans. She covers the mining of resources used to make devices, gaming consoles as well as computers, and e-waste. Her comprehensive reporting goes far beyond the energy needed to power all of this tech (including the vampire energy of chargers left in walls not in use), wending through cable lines, into data centers, and tackling e-commerce including delivery trucks as well as cardboard box production. Reading her words while stuck inside online schooling, glued to Netflix, and ordering essentials for delivery is eerie.
“Technology is a huge, powerful example of how easy it is for us to be separated from the consequences of the things we use,” she said. “Users have abdicated so much responsibility.” No consumer can address personal responsibility if we don’t understand the systems behind our goods and how they work. “You can’t ask for change if you don’t know what to ask for. I wanted each one of the chapters to give an overall picture of what is necessary and to understand that the climate change is a story about everything,” she said.
Schlossberg, a journalist and the daughter of Caroline Kennedy, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, and granddaughter of former President John F. Kennedy, enjoys breaking complicated things down into understandable facts. “I’m happy to get in the weeds. A lot of it is technical,” she said. Her research and writing help her evaluate and understand the world we live in, which helps her feel in control instead of overwhelmed. She’s good at explaining problems, which helps her readers feel more in control, too.
Sections of Inconspicuous Consumption on food, fuel, and fashion are equally wide-ranging and all share a thread that the narrative around climate change and personal action has been reductive. “Either it’s a small plastic straw ban or a complete transformation of our life. That makes people feel hopeless or it doesn’t make sense,” Schlossberg said. “This is a really big problem with a lot of moving parts. It’s not just a question of more wind and more solar. It does require changes at all of these different levels, but this is not a problem that can be solved by individual changes alone.”
That said, the most important individual action Schlossberg does is her work, and she says the most important individual action we can all take as citizens is to vote environmentally progressive leaders into office. “It’s really important to frame this as an opportunity rather than a crisis we have to avoid,” she said. Maybe now more than ever.
Please join Tatiana Schlossberg & Moms Clean Air Force Heather McTeer Toney on EARTH DAY!
Tomorrow, April 22 (Wednesday), please join WING digital for a critical conversation on how to stay engaged in the climate fight, even in quarantine. We’ll welcome special guest Heather McTeer Toney, the current National Field Director for Moms Clean Air Force and former mayor of Greenville, MS. In 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Southeast Region, and last year, she authored a powerful piece for The New York Times on why black women are leaders in the climate movement, which you can read HERE:
Heather, joined by moderator Tatiana Schlossberg (climate & environmental journalist and author of Inconspicuous Consumption) will break down what’s at stake across a range of environmental issues as COVID-19 continues to unfold and discuss the intersections of the pandemic, pollution, and inequality that are playing out globally. You’ll come away with new ideas for how to get and stay active on climate—both now, and post-COVID, too.
Join ZOOM Wednesday, April 22 at 6:30PM/EST: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_YoWku08SRgGpVC8pnDv9VQ