Illustration by Franky Olivares

A motto of 21st century environmentalism is to live simply and make sustainable choices, but people must go to extraordinary lengths to live green. Everyday activities in the U.S. are almost impossible to complete without leaving a carbon footprint. 

When everything in the supermarket is wrapped in plastic and cities and rural communities alike are difficult to navigate without cars, it’s no surprise that the atmosphere is polluted and landfills are overflowing.

The U.S. economy relies on industries that are stripping the planet of everything that makes it habitable. Fresh water, clean air and harmonious ecosystems are disappearing faster than we can pass legislation to save them. 

Climate change is human caused, but it would be more accurate to say climate change is capitalist caused. Individuals don’t decide what our food is packaged in. We don’t decide what areas are designated for fracking or mining. It is corporations, and a government that plays along with them, that force us to participate in unsustainable consumerism. 

The problem with capitalism is that it necessitates resource extraction. Saving the planet won’t be possible as long as industrial production is the foundation of the economy.

The government spends staggering amounts of money to facilitate resource extraction. Annually, the U.S. provides an estimated $20 billion in subsidies to oil  companies. 

While agriculture contributes billions of dollars to the U.S. gross domestic product, industrial farming in North America contributes over 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. 

Another sector posing a significant threat to the environment is the commercial fishing industry. Discarded fishing nets made up 46 percent of the 1.1 million bits of plastic debris collected from the Pacific Ocean for a Scientific Reports study. 

Some people choose to regulate their personal consumption by changing light bulbs, biking to work, bringing their own shopping bags, composting or having fewer children. But these actions won’t make a difference unless coupled with systemic environmental change. 

Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” urged consumers to adjust their behaviors to minimize personal consumption and save the planet. According to author and ecophilosopher Derrick Jensen, if everyone in the U.S. did everything suggested by “An Inconvenient Truth” carbon emissions would only fall by 22 percent.

Until infrastructure can support sustainability, it is unrealistic to expect the average person to opt out of daily conveniences. What is reasonable is advocating for accessible green solutions like stringent regulations on emissions, runoff, fishing and industrial farming.

We must pressure the government to invest in a sustainable future. Laws prohibiting environmental degradation and legislation to limit the power of polluters need to be passed now. Capitalism as we know it is unsustainable, we need to imagine a cleaner, greener  economy.

It’s easy to tell people to stop using plastic or creating non-biodegradable trash but avoiding such things is a privilege. In areas without access to clean water, plastic bottles might be the only alternative. Banning plastic straws could have a disproportionate effect on differently abled people who need straws to sip. People in need of new clothes can’t always be expected to opt for the more expensive 100 percent cotton alternative.

It is worth doing as much as you can to reduce your carbon footprint, but don’t shame those who can’t. Instead, pressure industries and the government to do better — because they can.

We must hold those in power responsible. Skip the straw, but also educate yourself about economic barriers to sustainability. Eat organic, and support organizations and divestment movements working to create systemic environmental change —  it’s the only way to save our planet.