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How to save the planet, and your sanity, when no solution looks perfect

A few years ago, Corona native Kristy Drutman — founder of the popular Browngirl Green platform and podcast — decided to take on the environment-minded challenge known as “Plastic Free July.”

The idea is to avoid single-use plastics for a month, then document that process to share strategies and inspire others to swap plastics for more sustainable options.

“I failed after five days,” Drutman said.

That’s how long it took her to figure out that, with her schedule and budget, it just wasn’t possible to ditch all food and other products packaged with plastic. And if Drutman, who’s now 28, couldn’t overcome these challenges, she wondered, how could people with more limited incomes and children and other challenges ever hope to?

Drutman’s experience is common for many people who’ve tried to adopt more eco-friendly practices or throw their support behind policies or projects billed as sustainable.

As conditions around the globe increasingly highlight our need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and polluting materials like plastics, most of us are trying to do our part. But no solution is perfect, and it’s inevitable that information will emerge about flaws or unintended consequences with these “green” solutions.

You can find examples of this everywhere. Wind turbines create clean energy, but kill birds in the process. Electric vehicles spew less carbon, but mining for materials used in their batteries is ruining some ecosystems. Conserving too much water is bankrupting water agencies. Replacing an oil field with a community park can contribute to gentrification.

Those who stand to benefit economically or ideologically from the old way of doing things love to spread the word about such flaws. Their campaigns often exaggerate the risks of eco-friendly choices while ignoring the risks we face from the status quo. Some even suggest flaws with green moves are insurmountable, or outweigh the good they can bring — often despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

But reports on shortcomings can sow confusion for even the most determined environmentalist, who can be left feeling like there’s no truly responsible action to take.

Take, for example, someone who wants to start composting food waste at home. They go online to shop for a composting bin, but find that most are made of plastic. And then comes a slew of questions:

Will buying a plastic bin that’s likely shipped from the other side of the globe cancel out the benefits of composting? What can actually be composted anyway? Should the pizza box go in the recycling or composting bin? Can chicken bones be composted, or just the meat?

“It’s definitely understandable that people do get discouraged,” said USC psychology professor Gale Sinatra, who studies climate science education. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”

State Senator Catherine Blakespear of Encinitas, who often works on environmental issues, said she thinks people sometimes cite flaws or confusion over a climate solution as an excuse to avoid change.

But dilemmas over imperfect solutions can lead to what psychologists are calling “eco-paralysis,” where people become so overwhelmed with the scope of the problem — and with confusion or disillusion over what actions are meaningful — that they end up not making any changes at all. That’s bad news both for the planet and for our mental health, since taking action is often touted as a leading strategy to cope with anxiety, guilt, grief and other negative emotions included in the emerging field of “psychoterratic” or earth-related mental health syndromes.

“To me, ultimately, the apathy or the discouragement comes from feeling powerless,” Blakespear said.

To keep those emotions in check, she asks herself some questions: “What can I do, given what is available to me? What can I change? How can I positively affect things?”

It can become a vicious cycle. You feel anxious or guilty about human-caused global warming and what might happen if it accelerates. So you try to take steps that might help, feeling empowered and proud for a bit. Then you learn those steps have some not-great consequences of their own, and it’s right back to where you started.

As mental health experts begin defining eco-emotions and developing strategies to help people cope with them, Drutman, Blakespear and Sinatra discussed how they grapple with such dilemmas. And they shared strategies they’ve adopted in their own lives, which they hope can help others find peace without giving up the fight for a healthier planet.

Appreciate individual action; focus on power moves

With eco-anxiety cases rising and reports of limitations with green solutions ubiquitous, some climate activists no longer push people to make changes at home to combat global warming. Instead, they argue, people interested in improving the climate should concentrate on voting and activism to create system-wide change.

But Sinatra argues that smart personal action can be empowering. She also believes it can spur systemic change by shifting “what we think is normal.”

Too often, Sinatra said, conversations about individual action devolve into debates over, say, problems with our recycling system, which she acknowledged is a “bit of a hot mess.” The good news, per Sinatra, is “there are things you can do that are much more climate impactful than recycling.” So for the sake of the planet and our mental health, she said it’s helpful to focus on actions we can control, that are less problematic and that pack the biggest punch.

An example she pointed to is eating less red meat, since vast carbon-storing forests are cleared to grow feed for cattle, which emit large amounts of planet-warming methane. Sinatra said she and her husband still eat steak once in a while, but not often. The result, she said, is that they enjoy it and don’t beat themselves up about it after dinner.

If everyone took this one step, Sinatra said, it would be “wildly” beneficial for the climate, transforming our food system through individual action. And she noted, “It’s a lot easier to reduce your meat consumption than it is to do some of the other things we worry about.”

Find community, work together

While changing habits at home can create a culture shift, Drutman said acting alone can be isolating. That’s why her top advice for avoiding eco-paralysis and burnout is to connect with other people who also care about these issues.

“The way that we get stifled is because we think it all lies on our own shoulders,” said Drutman, who now lives in New Jersey.

“I think if people could create more community events and spaces for people to do activities together, it’s a lot more empowering and also you could see more tangible impacts of your actions beyond just what you’re doing by yourself.”

But don’t feel the need to start from scratch. “There are a lot of nonprofits and local organizations that are doing really amazing work but are under-supported or under-resourced,” she said. Around her old stomping grounds in the Inland Empire, for example, Drutman said there are great organizations working to fight air pollution, water contamination and oil drilling in our backyards.

Solutions to such systemic issues often grow from grassroots initiatives, Drutman said. And she noted nothing feels more empowering than being part of a community that drives real change.

Flaws are OK

It may be discouraging to learn about downsides to a climate solution you’ve supported. But Blakespear said the only way to make progress is to acknowledge the flaws and work to fix them.

“There’s that saying, ‘In order to change, you have to change.’”

That’s what she did recently by introducing legislation to close a loophole in California’s pioneering ban on plastic bags. When Blakespear learned the law allowed companies to make thicker plastic bags that actually made the problem worse in terms of tons of waste produced, she helped pitch a new bill that aims to ban all plastic grocery bags as of 2026.

Blakespear recognizes she’s fortunate to be in a position to directly tackle such problems. But when the public discovers flaws in a green solution, they can bring them to a lawmaker’s attention, lobby legislators to fix the problems, and vote for politicians who take those challenges seriously.

The fact that we’re even discussing flaws in climate solutions shows we’ve learned some lessons from the harms that industry has done to our environment and communities, Drutman said. She said it’s important to still be critical of green solutions, ensuring efforts to give people a healthy environment are paired with discussions about environmental justice. Otherwise, “We’re going to see a replication of oppressive systems, even if it’s sustainable.”

“If we’re gonna build a world that is better, we have to always keep getting better.”

Push down the doomerism

When Drutman failed at the Plastic Free July challenge, or when other efforts haven’t panned out as she’d hoped, she reminds herself she’s trying to help topple a system that companies have spent billions of dollars to build.

“I think it’s important for people to recognize that you can only do as much as you can do when we’re operating in a system that’s designed to disempower an individual from making a difference,” she said.

On the flip, Sinatra said, “Don’t fall victim to doomerism,” convincing yourself it’s too hard or too late to make a difference. First, she said, that’s not accurate per most scientists, who say there’s a lot that can be done to limit further damage from climate change. Second, Sinatra said doomerism plays into the hands of companies that still profit from climate change.

All three advocates used the same word: balance.

“People need to have a life,” Sinatra said. And for now, that means living that life that still has a carbon footprint.

She sees it as similar to trying to eat healthier or exercise more. Just because you splurge on dessert or miss a workout doesn’t mean you’re not still making progress and can’t start fresh the next day.

“Nobody is keeping score,” she said. “So don’t blame and shame. And that goes for others as well as ourselves.”

Blakespear said she sometimes has “carbon guilt” over weekly flights to Sacramento or when she fills the tank on her family’s remaining gas-powered car. Then she recites a favorite quote from former President Barack Obama: “Better is good.”

Drutman also reminds herself, and others who might want to throw darts, that she’s always learning. And that means sometimes she’s going to get things wrong.

“It’s a lifetime fight,” she said. While that can feel discouraging, she said it also means there will be “more opportunities for you to try again, fail or maybe succeed.”

Plan to recharge

There still will be days when the scope of the problem and complexity of the solutions get overwhelming.

In those moments, Blakespear likes to reflect on the progress that’s been made in so many areas.

With environmental work, Drutman said, you rarely get instant gratification. So between work on long-term solutions, she mixes in a project with immediate visible benefits, such as volunteering to clear trash from a local watershed.

That strategy also taps into another favorite for Drutman: escaping into nature. Seeing the trees and water reminds her why she’s doing this work. It also helps her see how vast the planet is and that she’s only one person, who’s doing what she can based on what she knows today.

“I think there’s some peace in that.”

Source: Orange County Register

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