A Butterfly Effect: The Unseen Link Between Your Jeans, Industry & Environmental Threats

In the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, the brainy protagonist, played by Matt Damon, turns down a job at the National Security Agency after describing a theoretical chain of events that could develop into disaster if he were to take the job. He imagines breaking an international code at this new job that results in high gas prices, contaminated fish and a kid from South Boston getting a shrapnel injury.

Does it seem like a punchline that all those tangible, local things could be connected to such a small, random action?

“These problems are all connected and the lives we live in one place, which are an accident of fate to begin with, are not separate and distinct from the lives in another.” Tatiana Schlossberg stands at a podium in a crowded back room at Harvard Book Store. She’s wearing neutral colors — earthy tones that match the climate content she’s discussing — and unveils the murky connection between day-to-day items like jeans or Netflix, and their corresponding environmental impacts, like wasting tons of water or producing the toxic byproduct coal ash, a pollutant that doesn’t biodegrade.

About 2,000 gallons of water are used to produce one pair of jeans. (Images: Pexels)

Schlossberg is an environmental reporter and author of Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, and she might understand the logic in the Good Will Hunting scene linking seemingly random events to misfortune. She’s done the research that shows just how connected our actions can be.

Most conversations around climate change have covered personal behavior ad nauseam (i.e. recycle, use less water, and don’t forget to ride public transit instead of driving, you wasteful human). Schlossberg frames the climate dialogue differently, not resting on individual choice, but in how small habitual acts of consumption are connected to larger scale systems and industries overwhelmingly responsible for damaging the planet.

Her book examines the unexpected impact of four industries: food, fashion, fuel, and Internet technology. She reminds us that current systems of production have a massive drain on resources and can be tied to problems typically considered local, like asthma or desertification — two issues that according to Schlossberg can be connected in something as seemingly benign as cashmere.

In this example, she explains that cashmere clothing, a product from a particular kind of goat hair, has led to an increase of goat herds near the Gobi Desert. Hungry bovids pull grass from the roots, leaving the soil less able to absorb moisture, and spread the dusty soil across the landscape, resulting in hundreds of square miles of additional desert in Mongolia each year. The dust is blown east to Beijing where it combines with byproducts from factories. “But additionally,” Schlossberg explains, “it travels, takes about five days to go across the Pacific Ocean, and it reaches the west coast of the U.S.”

Environment reporter Tatiana Schlossberg at Harvard Book Store discussing her new book Inconspicuous consumption.

In a simplified summary: the increased industry of cashmere sweaters and the lack of regulation in goat herding to protect the environment is linked to desertification, the warming of the planet, smog in California, and conceivably asthma in the Beijing and Los Angeles populations. “They are all part of the same problem,” says Schlossberg.

She lays out many of these examples from cashmere to the internet. That’s right, you are consuming energy as you skim through this essay — not the energy in the tiresome act of moving your thumb across a phone, but in the energy source electrifying your device, sending the internet signal to you, and keeping servers running and cool.

But Schlossberg doesn’t want you to feel guilty.

“I don’t want to lay the blame for the climate crisis on individuals… It lets the people who are actually responsible for climate change off the hook, you know, fossil fuel companies and industry and lobbyists,” she explains. “We should not feel individually guilty, but we should feel collectively responsible for building a better world.”

Schlossberg has broken down and made clear the obscure web of globalized industry, and we are all implicated. Although our individual choices won’t end global warming, our collective action to pressure a sea-change in the structure of industry just might save us. She asks us to see that it is not necessarily our daily behaviors contributing to the climate crisis, but through our cultural and industrial norms we seem to be choosing collective disaster.

“Not to say that watching Netflix makes you an industrial polluter or a bad person, because it doesn’t. But I do think that it’s just so easy for so many of us to be disconnected from the consequences of our consumption.” Those consequences can seem as far apart as in that Good Will Hunting chain reaction scenario and as lacking transparency as a top secret mission. It shouldn’t take a genius, or an environment reporter with years of research, to find out our daily impact on the world around us.

It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans. Do you know if your jean manufacturer recycles the tons of water they use? No, and Schlossberg doesn’t think it should be on just you to figure it out, but perhaps we should start expecting clothing companies to tell us on the tags and demand more transparency from industry.

To end, here is a list of ten actionable items on climate change — some personal choices and some pressures to larger structures — all drawn from Scholssberg’s reading:

1) Vote for politicians who support climate action and business transparency

2) Pressure companies, like Amazon, to share their carbon footprints

3) Reduce meat consumption

4) Avoid flying or offset travel with accredited carbon-offsets

5) Avoid traveling altogether by telecommuting

6) Don’t just recycle plastic, reduce your use of plastic altogether

7) Recycle electronic waste

8) Support food waste bills

9) Ask clothing companies if they are utilizing up-to-date sustainable practices

10) Ultimately, reduce as much consumption as you can from industries damaging the environment

Tatiana Schlossberg on Twitter. For her full Harvard Book Store talk, visit forum-network.org

Written by Lauren Jo Alicandro, WGBH Forum Network’s Digital Associate Producer.

GBH's video hub for lifelong learners. Public media purveyor of the enlightening. Supported by the Lowell Institute. Learn something new at forum-network.org.

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