Maybe one day humanity will figure out how to live like disembodied angels in an immaterial world. Until then, however, humans will remain consuming, waste-producing machines, and books like Tatiana Schlossberg’s Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have will continue to be necessary to remind us of that fact.
Schlossberg comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Sept. 24 with a familiar message that she hopes to relate in an unfamiliar way. The New York Times environmental reporter is not interested in letting anyone off the hook for the habits and systems that are leading to potentially catastrophic climate change and gradually ravaging the planet. But she is hoping to help all consumers and waste-producers—i.e. everybody—see the bigger picture.
“I have felt for a long time frustrated,” says Schlossberg, “and I’ve heard from friends and readers that they felt frustrated as well, that the scale of the conversation about climate change didn’t really make sense to them. On one hand, we’re talking about plastic bottles and straws, and on the other hand, we’re talking about transforming the electricity grid. And I wanted to find what was in between those things, helping people make sense of these problems in the context of their own lives.”
Her book lands on four broad areas of interest: food, fuel, fashion and the internet. In the latter category, Schlossberg investigates the physical infrastructure of the internet in an effort to counter the assumption that online activity has a negligible effect on climate change. She examines e-commerce, the data centers that constitute the “cloud,” and, in a chapter that hits close to home for those in Santa Cruz County, she visits Silicon Valley to underscore that the clean, gleaming campuses of tech behemoths like Google, Apple and Facebook exist on top of a valley full of toxic Superfund sites, dating back to the area’s heyday as a tech manufacturing hub—production that is now done almost completely overseas.
“A lot of the branding of these technologies,” she says, “is about saving the world, or making the world a better place. It’s hard to square that kind of messaging with this kind of industrial pollution.”
Schlossberg, 29, is part of America’s most prominent political family. She is the granddaughter of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and the daughter of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. Journalism, she says, is a part of the Kennedy legacy. “I do come from a family of writers,” she says. “My grandparents met when my grandmother was a reporter in Washington D.C. And both of my parents are writers.”
Though her book is steeped in reporting, Schlossberg brings a sense of humor to what can be a dispiriting subject, with an ironic use of exclamation points and cheeky facetiousness. (After a passage that takes a bit of the holy glow from the consumption of organic foods, she cracks, “So what should we do instead? Crawl into a dark hole, probably!”).
“I really didn’t want that eat-your-vegetables tone,” she says. “Trying to shame people about their behavior or framing this as a moral issue has made it really difficult. It automatically makes people feel ashamed, like they’re doing something wrong. But in a lot of cases, they just have no idea.”
One of those arenas is clothing. When it comes to food, she says, people have become more sophisticated about their choices, and the environmental impact of those choices. But they don’t usually apply the same kind of thinking when it comes to clothes.
“Food culture has kind of exploded over the course of my lifetime, and I think we talk about it a lot—local food, organic food, etc. The fashion supply chain is so obscure, and it’s really spread all around the world,” Schlossberg says. “It’s really hard to get a sense of where things come from. It’s hard to wrap your head around how much clothes are a part of this, and one of the main engines of globalization.”
She reminds readers that growing cotton not only places enormous stresses on water supplies, but it’s one of the most chemical-intensive crops in the world. Cotton’s alternatives—synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, spandex, fleece, etc.—are essentially made from oil. What’s more, these textiles are constantly decomposing, both in the wash and through everyday use, which means that everything from sewage sludge to the air we breathe is filled with plastic microfibers.
So where does this kind of knowledge lead? Short of going naked and starving, what can the conscientious person do with the information Schlossberg is offering?
“It’s overwhelming,” she admits. “Knowing what I know now, it can be almost paralyzing just to go to the grocery store. But the narrative of personal responsibility in terms of consumption and waste has been really destructive, because it’s made us all look inward and feel guilty, and lets those really responsible off the hook.”
From President Donald Trump’s flirtation with buying Greenland to Democrats talking about straws in the debates to the release of the new iPhone 11, nearly every headline in the news has a direct or indirect bearing on the themes that Schlossberg follows in Inconspicuous Consumption. And the debate on climate change is gradually shifting from a preventive stance to an adaptive one (most recently illustrated in Jonathan Franzen’s sobering piece in the New Yorker titled “What If We Stopped Pretending?”) The paradox inherent in Schlossberg’s book is that at the same time, we all should be learning more about how consumption and waste works on a global scale. It’s probably a good idea to let up on all the choice-shaming.
“Yes, I’ve gotten a lot of tweets (saying), ‘So, how many trees were cut down to make your book?,’” she says. “That tactic, trying to call out environmentalists as being hypocrites, that’s been a tactic of the fossil-fuel industry and of people who are trying to prevent progress on this issue, by making it seem like you can’t trust anybody. I don’t think it’s the consumer’s responsibility to always make all the right choices. It really is on corporations and governments to make sure things are produced more responsibly. I think we need to spend less time generally policing each other’s behavior. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. On the contrary, I’m trying to help them understand their lives in the context of these larger global problems, and to help people feel that we’re all in this together.”
Tatiana Schlossberg will read from and discuss her new book at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. bookshopsantacruz.com.