Are you an aesthetic environmentalist? You know what I’m talking about. Your middle-class suburban house is filled with terracotta plant pots and handmade crafts, a wardrobe full of sentimental thrifted ‘gems’ and at the weekend you bake vegan zero-waste brownies out of chickpeas and — somehow — a potato. It is not difficult to find an eco-friendly sock brand in your drawer to snap a photo of, upload to Instagram, put through a vintage filter and label #sustainableliving and #eco.
If at least one of those things rang true for you then congratulations: you are an aesthetic environmentalist. Join the club, I’m in it too, and trust me — I’m not here to criticise.
Most of us in the millennial category will, when we develop a passion for something — be it climate or home decor or baking or taxidermied frogs — head to the internet shortly after to find an online community of people who share that passion. Social media has an amazing capacity to connect people all across the globe with the same interests, who then even start using the same hashtags and sharing knowledge. Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, with their elaborate algorithms and user tracking and questionable data usage, do a great job at showing us other people who think like us and want the same things.
And so we enter the bubble of sustainable living online. There are countless websites and networks where you can find eco-living discussion groups, but the visual element of Instagram puts this social network at the forefront of shaping the community. We can see how people in other countries are living their sustainable lives, and we want to live like them. I want to have plants hanging from my kitchen window and herbs growing on my windowsill. I want to have white sofas and also look modern and Scandinavian and minimalist.
When a community of interest forms, quite quickly that same community will develop a shared vocabulary and set of practices. We fit into communities by learning to act like them. And Instagram offers a unique visual insight into this — take a look at the most popular posts for #sustainableliving and all the photos appear eerily similar.
Apparently to participate in sustainable living you must be a young white female who works at a white desk with a single plant-pot and a stack of books about feminism and climate justice. You’re probably vegan and love baking and coincidentally look like a model in your grandma’s old dress that you tailored to fit you.
Communities are a great way to connect with others but they also have the opposite effect of being unintentionally exclusionary — and on social media the algorithms designed to show you more of what you already like just exacerbate this problem. When we post all the same images of sustainability and beautify it, we risk reducing sustainable lifestyles to a very specific Western, middle-class brand. One that assumes you already have the space, money and time to discover sustainable fashion brands and grow herbs and, well, use Instagram.
I recently wrote an article for the recently-launched climate website Ours to Save on the issue of framing green futures as clean and pure. The same applies here: we must be aware that the eco-friendly living choices we participate in are highly specific to our culture, socioeconomic status and available resources. In reality, the most crucial parts of building a sustainable future happen outside of Instagram and aren’t even Instagrammable. For some parts of the world, sustainable living means installing the first clean water tap in a slum, building toilets to prevent disease, or fighting to earn a living wage in a garment factory.
Even in Europe, it hardly fits the #sustainableliving brand to discuss necessary reforms in agricultural practices to reduce the use of harmful pesticides, or the logistics of installing solar panels. It wouldn’t be very eco-chic of me to show what reusable menstrual pads are like to use or bring up that I’ve destroyed more socks than I’ve saved by trying to sew up the holes. Yes, even with online guides.
I love aesthetic environmentalism. Catch me being the first to like the beautiful pictures of zero-waste cupboards filled with mason jars and uploading my own. I want to be clear that all efforts to be sustainable should be celebrated. However, we shouldn’t let this unique brand of environmentalism define our view of sustainable development or limit our understanding of what actions are necessary for a truly green future.
You are not failing at being eco-friendly if your life doesn’t look like a trending hashtag. For most of the world, it will not. For most of the world, going green may not involve all that much, err, green. A green world is not always pretty, nor should it be. We don’t need a pretty and Instagrammable future, we need one that keeps the planet, and the people on it, alive.
I write about climate issues. If you want to hear more, hire me or just want to chat about sustainability, find meon Instagram @coffee_and_casstaways, Twitter @casstaways, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.