Is This Secretly the Most Urgent Issue in Wellness?

Graphic: Well+Good Creative

As the ever-more-frequent spate of natural disasters shows, climate change is no longer theoretical. It's here. And according to two W+G editors in Los Angeles, now's the time for the wellness community to be part of the solution. Here, Annie Tomlin and Erin Bunch discuss living through last fall's wildfires, grappling with climate anxiety, and why a catastrophic future is *not* the only possibility.

Annie Tomlin: In my view, climate change is the number-one issue in wellness. We're just not seeing it as a wellness issue.

Erin Bunch:  Oh, I completely agree. It's weird, actually, that wellness doesn't really talk about it. Because I do think it's number one! From a well-being standpoint, environment is huge. If it's good for the environment, it's also good for you.

AT: Good point. Still, the problem can feel enormous and impossible. Do you ever feel like we're all doomed?

EB: I really don't. I was having dinner during the [fall 2018 California] fires, and it sort of felt like having dinner on the deck of the Titanic just because it was so dramatic here. Everyone at my dinner table was like, "We're going to be running from fires. We're going to be fighting over water." Just this apocalyptic future! I do think on this current trajectory, things are going to be worse for our kids, but I don't think it's necessarily inevitable.

AT: Why not?

EB:  I recently went to an event featuring Jean-Michele Cousteau, who's a big conservationist, and his partner, Richard Murphy. I asked, "Do you feel hopeless?" He said, "When I was young, you couldn't breathe the air in Los Angeles and we fixed it. The hole in the ozone layer—we fixed it." That was very encouraging; it's not hopeless.

AT: Well, with all this terrible climate news, it's easy to get mired into the idea that we're all going to be living in some version of The Road or Mad Max. But the message that's not getting out enough is there are actually things we can do, and that's the opportunity for people who are already interested in wellness. We can visualize a better future and work toward that. What if campuses and office buildings switch to clean energy? What if we individually cut out plastic and become more conscientious around travel? All of these small things can help spread awareness and lead us to demand bigger change from corporations and from our governmental leadership.

EB: Yeah. I do think it is depressing right now with leadership that doesn't believe in climate change. Individual change is important, but we're not going to get anywhere if we don't get corporations regulated. But I agree that we need to come together. I've become totally focused on plastic. It is everywhere. We are totally dependent on it. I'm spreading the gospel right now to everyone I know, which is so annoying! I'm going to stop getting invited to parties.

We can make do with a lot less and not just be as happy, but happier.

AT: That's okay. You and I can start our own no-plastics party. Personally, I've been trying to reduce consumption. I haven't bought any new clothes in months and I don't miss it—and I used to be a shopping editor! Yes, it's good for the environment, but it's also done wonders for my mental well-being. We can make do with a lot less and not just be as happy, but happier.

EB:  I agree one hundred percent. I talked with [zero-waste expert] Lauren Singer for my piece on plastics. Basically, for any item, she kept asking, "Do you need it?" This is hard to say because as wellness writers, do you need 9,000 supplements? Do you need 9,000 beauty products? Probably not. They all come in plastic. I really never shop now, but with the fires, everything felt scary. I shopped online, the things came in the mail, and I was stressed out. I don't have room for these things, and they came in a ton of packaging. I was like, "This is just going to end up going to Goodwill at some point. Why?"

AT: I've had that moment as well. I forgot my reusable cup at the coffee shop today, and I thought, "Ah, s—t." It's just one cup, but I feel so positive and happy when I remember the cup!

EB: I know. I guess we're just trying to live our lives. I do think to some extent it's a luxury to think about these things, but I didn't even realize what can be recycled and what can't. To be honest, I was doing wishful recycling. When you really look, most of the stuff you throw in the blue bin can't be recycled. And most of the stuff that even can be recycled isn't recycled.

AT: One of the most under-reported stories is that China is no longer buying the United States' recycling. They, quite understandably, don't want our garbage anymore. So we all think we're recycling, but… maybe not.

EB: Even well-meaning people aren't realizing that. I never used to think about what happened to my trash and my recycling once it went into the bin. Now, because of that story, I'm hyper-aware and I can see how Lauren Singer became Lauren Singer and has no waste in her life. Once you start to reduce it, you feel so good.

You can have all the supplements in the world, but if your bank account is empty, it's pretty dark.

AT:  Absolutely. Once you start doing it, it's actually really easy, and it feels good. Liberating, even.

EB:  It really does. I was talking to a woman who said that her 13-year-old son still uses the same stainless steel lunch containers since he was a little kid. She said, "Forget about the environmental impact—think of all the money I've saved!" I don't know about you, but saving money does wonders for my mental health and overall well-being. You can have all the supplements in the world, but if your bank account is empty, it's pretty dark.

AT: Yes. But we live in such a consumerist society, and buying stuff can be fun. For that moment, anyway.

EB: Yeah. Buying things is the culture, so I don't know. I'm struggling with that because I think telling people to buy less is not a very sexy message.

AT: No, it's not, but I've reframed things when I'm tempted to buy something I don't really need. I'll ask myself, "Who needs this money more—the millionaire CEO of some corporation or me?" And now that I have a son, I never want to be in a position when he asks me why he can't breathe the air, and I'll have to say—

EB: "I needed a different outfit for every time I took an Instagram photo."

AT: Exactly. I can't. So, I want to talk about impossible-seeming changes. Remember how Bill Clinton was famous for eating Big Macs? Now he's eating vegan. Nobody would have believed it back in the '90s, but culture evolves. Ideas shift. What are some things people can do if they want to create change but don't know where to start?

Remember how Bill Clinton was famous for eating Big Macs? Now he's eating vegan.

EB:  You bring up a good one with eating animal products. I'm not vegan or even vegetarian, but reducing your animal product consumption will have a huge environmental impact. To me, I'm OCD about plastic because it never goes away; it's staying on Earth forever. It's in the oceans, in the fish we're eating. Reducing plastic consumption can only be a good thing, and it's something that you can exert total control over in your own life. You can just stop buying plastic things as much. I've tried other things like walking instead of driving, and it tends to be a little harder for me. So, as I like to say, you don't have to do everything. Maybe just pick some easier things that you'll actually do.

AT:  That's an excellent point. Doing something is better than nothing, and nobody can do it all.

EB: Or—I love clothes, but I buy mine second-hand. I love to travel, but I'm trying to cut my carbon footprint in other places. Then: paying attention to the policies and the regulations they're trying to push politics in that direction is the other thing. A lot of the money that I don't spend on buying stuff, I put toward candidates who believe in climate change.

AT: Same. I was really heartened to see that the Democratic House is bringing back the climate change commission. I'm excited by ideas in the Green New Deal. Especially for younger people, we can't afford not to pressure our representatives for meaningful action on climate change. And when we look at something for Americans to unify around, what better subject than making sure that we all have a place to live and breathe?

Most Americans see that this is happening. It's that we need the political will to change and get things done.

EB: I hate that this is even political.

AT: I think that in time, it won't be. When I go home to Michigan, I talk with people from a variety of backgrounds and political perspectives. Everyone's noticing that seasonality has changed and that the crops don't grow as consistently as they once did. Most Americans see that this is happening. It's that we need the political will to change and get things done.

EB: Well, when I go home, there are very smart people who argue that the climate has always changed. To keep the peace, generally I just don't argue those types of things with them.

AT: People don't want to feel judged or attacked—and they don't want to make someone feel that way, either. But if we can come at those conversations from a place of trying to understand the other person's perspective, then I think meaningful conversations can happen. Or, hey, appeal to economics. There's a lot of money to be made in things like green energy and electric vehicles.

EB: Yeah. Look at the food industry. The plant-based food sector is growing like crazy. So, even if the meat and dairy industries might take hits, there's another industry cropping up. It's not a zero-sum game.

AT: I agree. Listen, I know we have to wrap up. Any final thoughts for now?

EB: I would reiterate this: Everything that's good for your environment is good for your health. So, even if you can only approach it from that micro-perspective of "What's best for me?" it still makes sense to take care of the environment.

AT: I couldn't have said it better myself.

Here are two easy ways to be part of the solution. First, get a rundown of what's in the Green New Deal. Then, learn how to make travel more sustainable.  

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