Eco-Burnout – How Taking Environmental Action Leads to Analysis Paralysis

Making Choices

Shortly after John and I got started trucking we began having some serious conversations about what we were doing and why we were doing it. As people who are both passionate about the environment with an aim towards intentional action, these were very important questions to us.

After we finished our thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, we were broke and had little idea what we really wanted to do next. Trucking was easy to fall into. John already had experience doing it, and we would be able to travel and continue our ideal lifestyle of simple living (in this case meaning no rent, commuting, or brick and mortar jobs to contend with.) We would be able to live and work together, and we could continue to have the kinds of conversations we were used to having on trail, and we found ourselves having as we traveled the Eastern US in an 18-wheeler

For my part, trucking was just one more new adventure. I was learning what it entailed as we went. John has a cumulative 4 years in trucking; he knew exactly what we were getting into. (We recently discovered that, being 3 and a half years older than me, he began trucking when I was still finishing up my senior year of high school – gah!) His reasons for getting out of it (on multiple occasions) were straightforward.

  1. Trucking is a highly sedentary job.
  1. Trucking is a highly wasteful industry.

Under the circumstances, we decided together that the benefits outweighed the risks. Though John has left trucking several times, he’s come back to it several times, also for good reasons (travel, simple living, no rent, commuting, or brick and mortar jobs, you know the drill.)

The correlation between actions and consequences has always been significant for me. The (highly existentialist) principle is that our actions have real outcomes. By making choices and taking action we are, at least in part, responsible for those outcomes. This has been a fundamental concern of mine and what led me to adopting a vegan diet and making my own laundry soap (disclaimer: these are not equivalent in their value towards lessening my carbon footprint), among other things.

By that logic, deciding what I do for work is of serious concern, it is not something I take lightly. I was pleased to find that John feels the same way. As we plan to share a career for the foreseeable future, this is a very good perspective to share.

We are highly passionate about the environment, intent on halting the already catastrophic damage that has been done to our climate. By working in an industry which involves the use and subsequent waste of packaging materials and large volumes of fossil fuels for the purpose of supporting our highly unsustainable habits of consumerism, I felt like we weren’t exactly living up to that goal of making choices that align with our values. (I.E. We are, at least in part, responsible for the damage done to our environment via the trucking industry, since we are employed in that industry.)

But, we were doing our best within our circumstances (turns out student debt doesn’t get paid off by backpacking all year, damn). I’ve had to remind myself many, many times in my adult life that some choices you make are influenced heavily by the environment around you. Sometimes your best is all you can do. But that’s a topic best left to philosophers with nothing better to do, we don’t need to go there now.

In any case, the ultimate goal was to use trucking to transition to careers that would fit the bill of being both sustainable and relatively lucrative. 

In the meantime, we decided we had to take some kind of environmental action: something concrete and physical. 

Taking Action

A lot of our conversations in the truck tended to go something like this:

John: I get really frustrated by how wasteful people are. So many trucks just sit and idle all night, burning fuel for no reason.

Erika: Mm-hmm, I don’t understand why. I think people don’t understand how much impact it can have, or they don’t care.

John: Yeah.

However, I’m also a firm believer that the actions of others are beyond my control. I don’t like to spend too much time thinking about what other people do, instead focusing on how my own actions can be improved. So we had other conversations, such as these:

Erika: I just feel like I want to do more. Like, okay, we’ve made the choice to be in trucking. But what more could we be doing to improve the world around us?

John: We could pick up trash at truck stops.

Erika: Okay!

John: I’ll research garbage bags made of recycled plastic.

Erika: Mmm, say more sexy things.

So, we started picking up trash. As far as environmental action ideas go, it may not be the most original. But it was something we could start doing right away, and there is certainly a need for it. There is a lot of trash at truck stops and around freeway on-ramps. 

Collecting trash at a truck stop as a mode of environmental action.

(Side note: I don’t believe that truckers are necessarily more prone to littering than the general population. But when you live in a truck it’s a lot harder to find places to properly dispose of your trash. I can’t tell you how many rest area dumpsters are locked up with padlocks or at least enclosed in a gate. No, this doesn’t make it okay. 

Additionally, no one really gives a sh** what truck stops and freeway on ramps look like. There’s no cleaning crews out picking up trash in these places, and it just piles up and piles up until you’ve got a miniature dump in the patch of grass behind the truck stop. It’s gross. It’s the reality.)

We collected grocery bags, rubbers scraps, plastic bottles (really exciting are the ones filled with urine), used diapers, cellophane from cigarette cartons, a couple credit cards, and just about anything that can be chucked from a moving car. When you spend a couple hours collecting trash in a small area, several thoughts occur to you:

This crap has probably only been here a short time… God I wonder how many layers of junk are buried in the soil I’m walking on. You could do an archaeological dig of this stuff.

Maybe it’s too late. The damage is done – what am I really accomplishing here other than making myself feel better?

This is just one place out of how many places in the entire world that looks like this? 

Everything I’m picking up is just going to go to a landfill anyway. It’s never going to disappear from the environment, even if you don’t see it on the side of the road.

People really suck. Our species deserves to die off.

It can get pretty bleak pretty quickly.

John has been making guerilla trash collecting a hobby of his. Anytime he’s parked somewhere with any amount of time to kill, out come his garbage bags and grabber. He’s like a man on a mission when he’s out there. For him it’s meditative. For me it’s frustrating, as evidenced by my above stream of consciousness.

He’ll tell me it’s a slippery slope to think that way, to instead think about how nice it is to be outside getting some fresh air and exercise.

On the other hand, he was a little moody after a trash collecting session and I asked him what was up, “Oh I’m just thinking about the amount of wasted resources we go through everyday.” Uplifting.

Moralism

The problem with taking action is realizing the true scope of the problem. You are confronted face to face with the reality of the problems we face, and it’s depressing. It’s hard to deal with, and I think a lot of the time that results in compartmentalizing. You shut away the facts you know to be true so that every time you have to drive your car you don’t have a break down about how you’re directly causing the extinction of polar bears.

I think anyone who puts some thought into environmental issues comes to the conclusion eventually that the things they are doing simply aren’t enough. You carpool, you recycle meticulously, you try to buy locally when you can and cut down on your single use plastics, you implement Meatless Mondays. You feel like you’re doing so much. But the magnitude of what needs to happen is so much bigger than choosing to ride your bike can solve. It’s frustrating. It’s heartbreaking. 

I tend to suffer from analysis paralysis when I start dwelling on these facts. In the face of the biggest problem of our age, the temptation is to do nothing at all. I found myself not wanting to go out and pick up trash, to just stay in the cozy truck and scroll on social media or watch YouTube videos. I mean, picking up trash wouldn’t be as good as getting people to stop dumping their trash anyway, or stopping waste production right at the source (single use plastic bans, right?)…

I asked John how he controlled the frustration in order to keep acting as he knew was right. He responded that picking up trash in one tiny corner of the world probably didn’t make much difference in the grand scheme of climate change. It’s about a cultural revolution around waste. 

Maybe drivers who see us out picking up trash will think a little bit about throwing things out. Maybe people who see us posting about picking up trash on social media will think a little bit about the amount of plastic they consume and ultimately waste. Or maybe not. The point is that, in a world where we have very little control, it is our responsibility to do what we can anyway

There’s a certain nihilism you have to adopt in order to make this work. The attitude is, “No, I’m not making much difference. But I have to try anyway.” If everyone in the world took on this perspective, perhaps the transformations would not be so minute and real change could begin. 

Collecting trash at a truck stop as environmental activism. Demonstrates the power of collective action if more people take on the challenge.

3 thoughts on “Eco-Burnout – How Taking Environmental Action Leads to Analysis Paralysis

  1. Having used a picker to pick up garbage in Washington State Parks for the last several years I have a ambivalent attitude toward my fellow humans. Being a host in a park means you are cleaning up campsites everyday. Maybe not the same crud, but, crud just the same.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s