Emer McLysaght: Why should I make climate efforts in a world of SUVs and private jets?

I keep washing out my yoghurt cartons, even though it won’t save the planet

When I’m feeling really depressed – “what’s the point” depressed – the inevitable end of the world becomes part of the abyss in my mind. The messages we receive about how the planet is burning and we must change everything we do or the earth will perish feed into my cosy conclusion that ultimately nothing has meaning, and suffering is not worth it. Hopelessness is as seductive as it is distressing. If you settle on hopelessness, you don’t have to change anything or work on anything. You’re accepting a fate.

To save myself from being completely consumed by the abyss, I have to cling to whatever hope there is going. Sometimes I’m clinging without realising it. I’m looking forward to something or I’m working towards something or at the very least I’m asking for help. At the very, very least I’m washing out my yoghurt cartons. Recently it occurred to me that this little job is a sign that I’m clinging to hope. Okay, it’s also a sign that I’m a lickarse, but as long as I’m doing this tiny chore, it must mean that I care even a little bit, right?

Washing out the yoghurt cartons is a base level effort in terms of saving the planet. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” has been drilled into us for decades now. We’re told to eschew fast fashion and cheap, mass-produced garments. We’re encouraged to eat less meat and dairy. We buy a bike. We buy an electric car. We install solar panels. We hope that the grand total of our efforts will be greater than the sum of the parts.

Why am I still rinsing out the Muller Lights if the corporations, the nations and the stupidly wealthy are going to knock me down on my way to the green bin?

It can be difficult to maintain that hope in the face of relentless messaging about how we will never pull together enough to make a difference and save the earth from climate change. Headlines about 18,000 flights flown empty to keep airport slots open and revelations that the solar panels on the roof of your new house are connected to nothing and policy decisions reduced to fighting over percentages and multi-nation protocols with long lead-in times and no accountability will wear even the most dedicated lickarse down.

Climate change sceptics and conservative thinkers beat their drum about ineffectual or unnecessary efforts. Kylie Jenner takes a 15-minute flight in her private jet. Eamon Ryan tells me to be “clever with energy” and adds a resounding full stop. Another SUV takes up two spaces in my local supermarket car park. Why am I still rinsing out the Muller Lights if the corporations, the nations and the stupidly wealthy are going to knock me down on my way to the green bin?

I’ve read reports from academics and experts who say the messaging on climate change must evolve beyond terrifying doom. Climate despair has to inspire hope, rather than nudge people towards the abyss. We need to be shown that industrial and agricultural emissions are being tackled by governments, corporations and lobby groups without leaving a farmer in Cavan destitute or a worker in Cork out of a job. That’s a pretty tall order.

We need to be warned that systemic change will trickle down so that we’re eating differently and driving fewer cars, not newer cars. Electric vehicles are a solution for the motor industry, not the planet. For every one person who switches to electric, there needs to be multiple people who quit driving altogether. These are not easy ideas to sell to a public who’ve been continuously told that it’s basically too late, the curtains are on fire and we’re just binge-watching Succession while the flames lick our hair.

On a personal level it all feels very disempowering. Why should I try to make changes when some people don’t try at all? Why should I make an effort when Big Coal or Big Beef or Big Cement laughs all the way to the stifling bank? At the risk of going full Pollyanna, this is where hope comes in. We have to hope that just as the processes of fossil fuel industries trickle down to the objects we use and consume every day, the changes we make in our lives will travel back up the chain to force modifications in those industries. My primary school years were dominated by education around saving the ozone layer and preventing acid rain. I remember being told that deodorant cans and fridges and coal fires had to change. Decades later the positive results of internationally co-ordinated and science-led action are evident.

When I’ve been really depressed there’s no amount of recycling that would tear me away from the comforting embrace of hopelessness. There’s no planet-saving initiative that would convince me there’s a point to it all. Somewhere though there has been hope, be it looking forward to something, caring about something, or asking for help. When I’m well I can apply those same measures to my impact on climate change. I can care about the planet, use my voice, be informed, wash out the yoghurt cartons and cling to hope.