Yes, Sometimes it IS better to do nothing

When discussing environmental problems, I often hear this refrain:

Well at least s/he’s doing something about it!

That is, in my opinion, one of the most destructive notions that we as a society promote. Sometimes, doing “something” is way worse then doing nothing at all.

Case in point: This stupid thing. You’ve probably seen The Ocean Cleanup Project praised on the news as some genius invention from a teenager (who knows nothing about the ocean). Meanwhile, stuffy scientists have beencriticizing it from the get go, offering way less sexy alternatives. Unsurprisingly, the test runs have not been successful, for some of the very reasons listed by its critics.

It’s important to pay close attention to the criticism being leveled against the project. No one is saying the project won’t do enough to remove plastic. Instead, they’re saying that there’s been inadequate research and preparation, especially regarding environmental impacts (which is bizarre, since the whole point of the Ocean Cleanup is to “save” the environment).

Take this little gem:

None of the species mentioned in the Zooplankton Diversity section (p. 320) actually inhabit the NPSG [North Pacific Subtropical Gyre].

Plankton make up the base of the food chain and are notoriously fragile. But the researchers couldn’t even be bothered to get the species rights?

That’s kind of a big deal. In fact, I would argue that the oversimplification of the massively complicated issue that is plastic waste, followed by the oversimplification of the massively complicated marine ecosystem, is precisely why the project has continued to fail.

It’s not like this information was unknown or unavailable at the time. The individuals who worked on the project just didn’t bother to look any of this up. And the public rewarded that poor research with $10 million dollars in funds. $10 million that could’ve gone to actual conservation work, and is instead going to what could actually be very detrimental to the environment (Seriously, just read what smarter people then me have to say).

Then, there’s incidents like this, that often occur after man-made disasters:

According to conservationists, some well-meaning cleanup crews who unknowingly walk into nesting habitat may be doing more harm than the oil itself, experts say.

The above quote is from an article about the Deep Water Horizon Spill in 2010, but that’s not the first time that there’s been a conflict between clean-up crews and birds’ nests. I’m certainly not against oil spill clean up initiatives, but I also think that we as a society need to be more thoughtful about how we go about “helping” in any scenario.

Which leads me to my final example, the so called “SecondDisaster” of clothing and supplies that people send after a highly publicized event. This may feel like a new phenomenon but it’s not.

There are several advantages to cash donations, he said. Cash can directly benefit survivors because it can meet specific needs, boost a local economy, and reach overseas locations more quickly. “Voluntary agencies need to crack the resistance people have to collecting cash. They feel it’s easier to collect the goods. But people could get just as enthusiastic about, say, a benefit event rather than getting involved in collecting and sorting.”

That’s a quote from 1999.

Take a look at this, from 2016:

“Money sometimes doesn’t feel personal enough for people. They don’t feel enough of their heart and soul is in that donation, that check that they would send.

“The reality is, it’s one of the most compassionate things that people can do.”

Aid workers have been saying for 17 years what they need- and don’t– from the public.

This very clear request has been ignored because it doesn’t feel good. You know what else doesn’t feel good? Cutting back on your personal plastic use. But that’s a much more cost effective and efficient way to curb ocean plastics.

It also feels pretty terrible to “do nothing” in the face of an oil spill, even if sometimes, it’s the best solution for long-term ecosystem recovery. But it doesn’t feel good to refuse to clean off oiled birds, even though “saving” them may be less humane. And you definitely vote for individuals who support environmental and safety regulations (something BP flouted).

When it comes to human beings, we especially want to be personal. That’s why we donate clothes, which we have plenty of because of our unsustainable shopping habits. I suspect that we would feel much less insistent that our clothes go to someone who “needs it” if we bought less, and actually wore our clothes out, rather then just out of fashion.

I’m not trying to say that fashion is evil, and we should never help out from an oil spill (I do think we should absolutely cut out most, if not all, plastic use). However, I think that we need to reevaluate the standards we set for our “good” acts, especially environmental ones. We need to be thoughtful, and yes, we should definitely listen to expert advice! Environmental scientists love the environment- That’s why we do what we do! If there was an easy solution to the environmental issues, we would have already implemented them.

When it comes to many issues, but especially environmental (and often social/environmental justice) the solutions cannot be simple, because the problems are not. But often the best solution is for each of us to make long term behavioral changes. That’s much harder to sustain then a weekend of volunteering or a donation. But that is what will bring about effective results.

So yes, sometimes it is better to do nothing. But usually, it’s best to do a bunch of little things, over the long-term.