Optimistic Nihilism and Climate Change: Seven Ways College Students Can Live More Sustainably


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Polar bear on ice floe. Melting iceberg and global warming. Climate change

Victoria Valletututti, Staff Writer

In September, smoke loomed for days in Northern California from the flames of the August Complex Fire, where nearly 900,000 acres of woodland burned wildly. In 2018, 1.8 million acres burned, and in 2020, 2.5 million acres were scorched so badly that only ash, rubble and plumes of orange smoke remained–which spread out over the sky of Northern California like a quiet and pervading blanket emblematic of disaster.
Rapidly changing ecosystems and the rising sea level – the melting of polar glaciers and ice caps. As impalpable and un-seeable as the literal force of climate change is, its effects are far more striking. In fact, they are so striking that in many ways, and all at once, it can feel like the end of the world. Rest assured, it’s not; at least not yet.
The climate crisis is but a cog in our crises-ridden world, but that’s not to say it should be ignored. For a young person, it’s easy to feel weighed down by the severity and rapidly worsening state of the planet. It is our home after all.
Those of us who are lucky enough not to have been directly affected by the upheavals of the climate crisis are sure to see news coverage and even social media coverage regarding the damage done. And for those of us who rarely see the tangible effects up close, it’s easy to stay tucked away under the veil of obliviousness. But sometimes all you have to do is step outside and take a look around for you to notice.
Though awareness and conversations of climate activism have gathered steam both online and in-person, a frequent response to these discussions is silence and disdain, or “climate doom.” There are two reasons why a person would respond so adversely. 1. The premise is overwhelming, and they don’t know how to help from a lack of knowledge on the subject. Or 2. The premise is overwhelming and they think, “well, we’re too far gone.” Respectively, both of these responses are appropriate. This is why we must approach this crisis with a bit of optimistic nihilism.
It seems we are on a knife’s edge. But we haven’t yet broken the seal of “too far gone” or “past the point of no return,” – “research suggests that the tipping point lies between 1.5°C and 2.0°C of warming” – explains, Renee Cho, writing for the Columbia Climate School.
However, it is true that we cannot undo what has already taken place. We cannot reverse deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, or the droughts, floods, and fires that have already unfolded. These disasters are irreversible.
Nevertheless, optimism is crucial. Action is crucial. Priorities must shift, and lifestyles must change. We face a complex decision of sacrifice and willpower. Will we, collectively, do better?
If your answer is yes; if you decide you’d like to truly do something to fight climate change, the question becomes what, exactly. I have good news. You don’t have to be a radical climate scientist to do your part in preserving the sanctity of our Earth’s environment. Being an “environmentalist” can start with the smallest of gestures, and it’s a lot easier than you think.
“Living a sustainable lifestyle means creating less waste. But, this means altering the way we buy clothes, food, and even how we use our electronics. It also means becoming aware of how we can exercise their political rights,” according to Anna Conkling of The Years Project.

Here are some sustainable lifestyle choices that are student-friendly:
1. Recycle. Attainable, elementary, and mindless; this option should be quite obvious. Recycling includes the use of reusable bags at the grocery store, recycling old newspapers and outdated technology; old phones, clocks, and radios. Look for the recyclable label on the items you buy.
2. Thrift. Thrift shopping is a foolproof way to fight climate change. Sixty percent of clothing will be discarded and thrown away within the first year of its manufacture. This means all the materials (not to mention all the labor) that went into making the clothes will have been wasted. Thrift shopping is not only sustainable, it is much less expensive.
3. Buy a reusable coffee cup. Whether you prefer tea or coffee it’s a certifiable fact that most college students depend on caffeine throughout the day. Instead of buying a one-use plastic cup for iced coffee, ask the barista to fill your own cup instead.
4. Self-education. Knowledge is power. It’s easy to experience some dissonance from the climate crisis as if thinking of it abstractedly makes it somehow less existent. If you feel uninformed on the subject, a great way to gain a better understanding is through reading articles and watching online videos. Having a solid understanding of our current situation better equips you to inform others about it too.
5. Unplug electronics after they’ve reached full charge. Both the energy and price of keeping your laptops, TVs, phones, and other devices plugged in all day adds up. “In 2018 alone, overall electricity production represented 37 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States alone,” according to Tatiana Schlossberg in her article “Just How Much Power Do Your Electronics Use When They Are ‘Off’?” Unplug your devices and reduce your carbon footprint. Simple.
6. Join campus clubs and campaigns. It’s much easier to stay interested and inspired when you are surrounded by like-minded people. Get involved.
7. Download Ecosia and OceanHero. Downloading eco-friendly search engines is a great way to contribute to the environment on a day-to-day basis. Ecosia contributes to reforestation and CO2 reduction, and for every 45 searches, the organization plants a tree. OceanHero is another search engine aimed at preserving the health of ocean life. It blends recycling and ocean conservation together to collect, re-purpose, and recycle plastic debris from the oceans.
If we don’t stay conscious about our consumption and lifestyles, we are in for a bleak future. However, it’s important to remember and acknowledge that every little gesture matters. Everything we do to make climate change better has a more significant impact than we may realize. Yet, everything we don’t do will only make it worse. Just think, if everyone plays even a small role, then we are all closer to successfully mitigating its effects. It’s difficult when you can’t see the progress, but don’t be discouraged–it’s there.