Green Up Your Act

James Colley aspires to a clean, green conscience.

Illustration of a person with a towel over their head in front of a background of burning forest

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

I’m in a hotel room in Sydney. It’s the kind of hotel that cleverly bills itself as ‘boutique’ to trick you into thinking the lack of space is actually a feature. A small television leers over the bed on a small metal brace that I’m just going to assume is structurally sound. There’s a cardboard hanger on the door. The side facing me has a minimalist design and text that reads Tidy: (v) To Tidy. I don’t bother looking at the other side.

In the bathroom there’s a small sign telling me that this is a hotel that cares deeply about the environment. Part of me is reassured. The last thing I want is to stay in a nihilistic hotel that welcomes the coming apocalypse. It just doesn’t scream comfort. The sign challenges me, explaining that we all have a responsibility to do our part for the planet and my part is deciding whether I really need a fresh towel or not. If I put my towel back on the rack, it signals that I recognise that life on this planet is precious and must be safeguarded. If I throw the towel to the floor, I may as well be throwing my fellow humans down there as well. Sadly, I am only here for an overnight work trip so I won’t get a chance to do my part for the generations to come.

Then I remember the plane trip I took to get here. Surely the small mercy of my towel choice cannot compare to the carbon footprint required to achieve flight. I can’t remember if I checked the little box for the carbon offset. On the cerebral level, I would argue that I have already paid hundreds of dollars to a company that posts billions in profits every year and could surely spare the $1.50 that it apparently takes to assuage me of the guilt of flying. But on a gut level, I can’t help but imagine my future grandchild, surrounded by a miasma of fire, tears in their eyes asking me, ‘Papa, why didn’t you click the little box to save me from this?’

I’m the kind of person who, when anxious, takes refuge in researching whatever is making me anxious. I’m not claiming this ever calms me. It absolutely doesn’t. But it does make sure my anxiety is as specific and pointed as possible. The spectre of climate change is no different. I’ve read articles, books, scientific papers, watched documentaries. Once, I even listened to an audiobook at double-speed to give the sense of urgency I felt the subject warranted.

To tell the young person at the checkout that I’d like a plastic bag feels like I might as well lean over the counter and hiss, 'Your life means nothing to me. Nothing!'

Intellectually, I know it isn’t down to individual choice. Worse, I know the very idea that climate change can be solved by individual action is an insidious lie used to keep the onus on individuals to police themselves constantly rather than turn their attention to the large corporations that do the vast majority of the polluting. And yet. And yet.

Every day as I wash my reusable plastic coffee cup, I grumble darkly to myself about how it’d be so much easier if I threw it out. Whenever I forget my canvas bag at the supermarket, I buy myself another one. I know this is actually making the problem worse, if anything, but to tell the young person at the checkout that I’d like a plastic bag feels like I might as well lean over the counter and hiss, ‘Your life means nothing to me. Nothing!’

More and more, as my peers and I reach the age where we start seriously considering having children, the questions are becoming less about whether we’re stable and prepared enough to have a child and more about whether it’s ethical to have one. There’s a strong case to be made that it would be an act of cruelty to bring someone into a world that you know is dying. It’s an argument I find so compelling that, like many people faced with an ethical dilemma that isn’t falling their way, I push it out of my mind and try not to think about it. ‘I’ll just make sure my kid is prepared for the coming resource war,’ I tell myself, as if that makes it better.

Illustration of dripping blood-style horror movie lettering, spelling out: 'Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth's vital resources!'

There’s a story that’s drifted down from the 5th Century BC about Persian Emperor Xerxes. Furious at a bridge collapsing, the great emperor ordered his troops to punish the sea. He sent troops out armed with chains to strike the waves as they washed onto shore. Not just that, he also ordered them to smacktalk the water, to make sure the point got across.

I think of that every time I make a small, environmentally friendly choice. I’m hitting the sea with a chain and saying, ‘Wet much, loser?’ It doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t even make me feel better. At most, it just holds off the guilt until the next wave comes in.

Still, I put the towel on the rack, tick the offset box, wash the cup and carry the canvas bag. And perhaps one day I will be able to look that grandchild in the eye and proudly say, ‘I did the bare minimum’.

Portrait of James Colley

James Colley is a television comedy writer for Gruen, Bravest Warriors, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and Tomorrow Tonight among others.  His writing has been featured in the Guardian, Crikey, the Big Issue, and Junkee among others. He is author of Too Right, among others. He is never photographed among others.

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