At an Earth Day event this year, someone asked me to name the one thing we can do to combat climate change. Initially I said I couldn’t possibly narrow my response down to one thing. Then the answer came to me. “Consume less,” I said.
Of course, with a yearly emissions rate of 18 tons of carbon dioxide per person here in the US, compared to one-tenth of a ton per person in Madagascar, “consume less” applies more to developed countries.*
At its core, the grassroots, zero-waste movement rejects unbridled consumerism and plays an important role as we grapple with climate change. To live a zero- or low-waste lifestyle, first and foremost, you buy less stuff. You use what you have. You live intentionally, carefully considering your wants, needs and purchases rather than mindlessly and compulsively consuming. Living this way means relying on ourselves more to fulfill our needs and relying less on corporations for the conveniences they will happily sell to us.
This self-reliance translates into eating real food rather than highly processed, overly packaged, food-like items industrially produced within a food system that wreaks havoc on our planet. Living zero- or low-waste means we shop for locally sourced whole foods when possible—they generally require less packaging for transport—we eat all of the food we buy rather than allowing it to languish in the back of the refrigerator, we eat at home often and we wash our reusable dishes after we eat.
What does all of this have to do with socks?
Recently, I read a depressing article in the New York Times. “She must be talking about the UN’s report on humans speeding mass extinction,” you might be thinking. No actually, although I hope that sobering news served as a wakeup call to those for whom the IPCC report on cataclysmic climate change wasn’t quite convincing enough.
In the opinion piece I’m referring to, “What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With,” Dr. Darcy Lockman writes, “Division of labor in the home is one of the most important equity issues of our time. Yet at this rate it will be another 75 years before men do half the work.”
Obviously, real food cooked at home requires more work than ordering takeout through Uber Eats or DoorDash and then tossing all of those plastic containers, wrappers and bags into the trash. (Click here for time-saving cooking tips.) And upon whose shoulders will most of that work fall if our current division of labor continues? Ding ding ding! That’s right, women’s. But only until 2094.
Well, by 2030, we need to have implemented the changes necessary to limit the very worst impacts of climate change.
The demographics of zero waste
My Instagram stats reveal that I have an 89 percent female/11 percent male following—an improvement over the previous 90/10 ratio! People regularly ask me why the zero-waste movement attracts more women than men.
I believe a couple of factors contribute to this phenomenon. For one, women tend to do the lion’s (lioness’?) share of the shopping, the cooking and the cleaning, thus, we control what comes into the home. Add to that our desire to ensure that our children will live in a habitable world and you understand why we’d want to reduce our consumption and waste.
When I mentioned the topic of this blog post on Instagram earlier this week, several women had other theories for the zero-waste gender imbalance, including this one: their husbands or boyfriends simply do not care if humans and all other species go extinct. I’ve spoken with plenty of people who express similar opinions. They shrug off the IPCC report and the more recent report on mass extinction. What they may fail to realize—or more likely, would rather not contemplate—is the fact that the downward spiral from the Earth-is-okay-in-many-places stage to the humans-now-extinct stage will be unimaginably painful and ugly—water wars, land grabs, refugee crises, drought, famine, blight, disease and so on.
Plenty of people do care though, both men and women—and yes, women are still people, even here in the US, for now at least. If you are one of these men, or a teenager of any gender taking to the streets to protest climate change, or a tween staying home, for goodness sake, pick up your damn socks, run them through the washing machine and hang them up to dry. Women can’t be shackled to our solar ovens, taking care of everyone and everything but ourselves. Like Mother Earth, mom can take only so much before she kicks the kids out.
To tackle climate change, we must eliminate, among other social injustices, the culturally accepted—and encouraged—notion that women will perform the majority of the unpaid labor in the home. Imagine if women ceased to do this work. Our capitalist economy would crumble. (Now, there’s a solution!)
Some gender inequity and climate change solutions
Obviously I don’t have all the answers to solving gender inequality or climate change. We must raise helpful rather than entitled sons. That will shorten the current 75-year timeline to parity. Universal child care and paid maternity leave in this country would improve gender inequality. And men, guess what? You just might get more sex as a result! Honestly though, I don’t know how to convince some men—the hopeless causes—to help out more at home. You could try pulling a Lysistrata.
I do come back over and over to one idea for solving many of our current woes: living and working together in small communities, such as cohousing arrangements, ecovillages and communes.
I’ve lived in an intentional community for 15 years and I love it. (Read more about that here.) We have a community kitchen in which, if we want to, we can eat vegetarian meals four nights a week. Cooks and cleaners—both men and women—volunteer for these jobs. Volunteers also grow some of the food for the kitchen in our gardens and orchard.
I know my neighbors—and I want to know my neighbors. Every time I step outside, I run into someone lovely to chat with. My kids grew up surrounded by other kids living here. We help each other. If I need to borrow a piece of equipment from someone or a cup of flour, I can. Our community reminds me of living in a college dorm but without the wild parties. Some neighborhoods still work this way. Many do not.
Not everyone living in a house and paying a mortgage can just up and move to a commune—or wants to (although many people over the years have rented out their homes and have moved in here). But if you have space, you could consider having an extended family member move in with you.
Multi-generational households offer many benefits. Grandma’s health improves from the increased social interaction, she helps watch her grandchildren and they now have the opportunity to learn from her wisdom. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re just starting out in life—finishing college or getting your first job or getting married or shacking up or looking for roommates—consider living in an intentional community. Search for them worldwide at the Foundation for Intentional Community.
Nuclear families each living isolated in their own homes and each buying their own lawnmowers, kitchen equipment, camping gear and other consumer goods has been great for the GDP but not so great for conserving our resources or for making domestic life more equitable for the person doing most of the unpaid labor in each of those homes—mom.
* Hawken, Paul. Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Penguin Books, 2018.