clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Going green shouldn’t be this hard

How we can have our cake and solve climate change too.

Lots of people want to go green. So why is it so difficult?

Lauren Singer lives a nearly waste-free life. How near? Her total trash for the past four years fits into a single Mason jar.

If that makes you sputter with disbelief, you’re not alone. Singer’s lifestyle provokes strong reactions: Some people think it’s great and want to learn how she does it, some insist that she’s a fake, and others respond like her way of life is somehow an attack on theirs.

“They feel like they're under a microscope, like the fabric of what they believe in is being threatened,” she said.

Singer experienced this reaction close to home. In college, she tried to persuade her mom to switch to organic milk. It didn’t go well. Her mom felt like she was being backed into a corner, like Singer was criticizing her choices. So now when Singer talks to people about living a zero-waste life, she takes a different approach.

“Once people are presented [with] the topic in a way that breaks it down a little bit, they realize, oh, this isn't so hard. This isn't so isolating. This is something simple,” she said.

Singer herself didn’t get to zero waste overnight; it was a process. She learned to make her own toothpaste and realized how easy it was. Then she started taking reusable bags to the grocery store until it became routine. And she kept going like this until several pounds of trash a day turned into zero.

This may work on an individual level, but can we also do this at a scale that really makes a difference to a global problem like climate change?

The question of how to get society as a whole to make greener choices goes well beyond the issue of waste, but the worries are similar: Going green will be too hard and too expensive, and will require far too much sacrifice.

California has long enjoyed being a contradiction to these arguments, and Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, has had a front-row seat to the state’s climate change successes since the 1970s.

“Every time we approach the possibility of tightening up a regulation or setting a more aggressive goal, we hear some of the same concerns. ‘This time you're going too far. This time it's going to require actions that are going to be too expensive, too burdensome, that the public won't support,’” she said.

This hasn’t been the case. Going green has hardly been terrible for California, even with some of the most stringent regulations and ambitious climate goals in the US.

“We have seen the economy overall in California outpace the national average, investments in green technologies have flowed to California in much greater numbers than any other place in the US, and whole new businesses have risen, grown up, or moved here,” said Nichols.

Watch the video above to see Singer, Nichols, and others explain how going green not only is not terrible but can be a benefit in many surprising ways.

Learn more painless climate change solutions at

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.