This month’s blog is the second of a pair, so I suggest you first read last month’s if you haven’t already done so. The previous blog asked a simple question: what can we take from fiction generally, and from dystopian literature specifically, to apply to the problem of ecological destruction and the climate crisis? I would like to state at the outset that the “lessons” explored in this two-part blog are certainly not the only ones possible, but nonetheless I believe them to be important. So, without further preamble, let’s jump right in on this month’s primary target: the ecological impact of the cotton tote bag.
“But,” I can already hear you asking, “what does this have to do with all that stuff from last month about I Am Legend and heroes and villains?” Don’t worry; I’ll get to that too.
In March, SciShow published a video on the relative ecological impacts of various grocery bags. For those who aren’t familiar with it, SciShow is a YouTube channel that, to quote their website, “unpacks recent—and frequently weird—scientific research.” Because I am an absolute nerd, I love watching their videos and am often impressed by their ability to communicate effectively the results of recent scientific studies to the general public. In this particular video, Hank Green, founder and frequent host of SciShow, shared the results of a “2018 Danish Environmental Protection Agency Report,” which found among other things that reusable cotton tote bags are far less environmentally friendly than one might first assume. By considering 15 different ecological effects to determine the total environmental impact, the study found that “if you grocery shop three times per week, you need to use [a single] cotton bag for the next forty-five years to have the same impact as seven thousand single-use plastic bags.” And lest you think this impact is primarily a result of modern industrial farming practices, organic cotton totes are even worse.
Now, I imagine some of you are already familiar with the deleterious impact of cotton farming, but I suspect many others are not, and for the latter it likely comes as a surprise to hear that the seemingly “natural” and “green” option is by most accounts far more environmentally harmful than the oft-villainized single-use plastic bag. I want to be very clear here: I am not saying that single-use plastic bags are in fact “good” and that we should go back to using them as the standard; rather, I agree with Green’s conclusion that “no matter what your bags are made of, the best way to minimize their impact is to reduce how many you use and reuse them as many times as possible.” Every product you buy has some environmental impact, and thus the best way to reduce your impact is to treat the oft-cited “reduce, reuse, and recycle” not as three equivalent strategies but as a descending order of priority: reduce how much you use; reuse what you cannot reduce; recycle only when you can’t first reduce and only what you can’t reuse. So by all means, keep using your cotton tote if you have one, but don’t go out to replace it at the first sign of wear.
A few months later, Hank Green followed up with a Twitter post and a vlog. (Again, I should probably give a bit of context here: Hank Green, like his brother and vlog partner John Green, is a popular internet personality prolific on Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok.) In his Twitter post, Green asked if we would “rather not know” about the cotton bag’s deleterious environmental impact, and perhaps surprisingly, many replied to say that they would in fact prefer not to know: one comment, which garnered 211 likes, states “i don’t have the emotional energy to be worried about things i ~already own~ having issues in production.” In his follow-up vlog, Green sympathized with this position, as do I. However, Green insists nonetheless that we must make ourselves aware of all relevant facts and statistics as they are made known, for “if we think cotton is always good because it’s all-natural or whatever, we start putting everything in cotton bags and we start using cotton bags like they’re disposable.” To emphasize this point, Green recounts an anecdote of buying a pair of shoes: not only did the shoes already come in a box, but the cashier then placed the shoebox in a cotton bag as if it were a single-use plastic bag. Simply put, if we believe in simple equations like “cotton is natural and therefore good” and “plastic is unnatural and therefore bad,” we run the risk of unknowingly causing more harm than good.
The astute among you likely know how this is going to dovetail into last month’s blog—Just as I Am Legend’s early audiences were reluctant to give up their deep-seated separation between hero and villain, so too do many consumers retain deeply held beliefs about what makes a product “good/natural/green” and what makes a product “bad/unnatural/harmful.” Our relationship with the media and entertainment we consume cannot be divorced from our relationship with the “real world,” for if one insists on easily recognizable differences between heroes and villains in fiction, then it is far more likely this person will apply such a framework (whether consciously or unconsciously) to the real world. However, the real world is far more complicated than such a simple framework suggests, and a product that appears as the hero may, like Robert Neville in I Am Legend, be doing unacknowledged harm far-off screen.
So, the “lesson” we should take from I Am Legend is much the same as the lesson that Hank Green imparts in his vlog: “[I]f we cared enough to imagine that a cotton tote was eco-friendly, then we should change our mind when we are presented with evidence to the contrary. If we are going to care, we have to orient our care based on reality.” Robert Neville had all the best intentions as he sought a cure for the zombie plague, just as the shopper has all the best intentions when they buy a cotton tote bag. Good intentions should absolutely be applauded, but it is even more important to applaud those who, like the Robert Neville of the film’s original ending, change their behavior upon learning that they have been acting on false and harmful assumptions. It is too late, of course, to go back and convince the producers not to reshoot the ending to the film; it is not too late, however, to choose the course of our own story.