What Will it Take to Move Us to Action?

We live in a world where most people act after its too late. We look at the mental health of a teenager compelled to shoot kindergarteners after the tragedy. We vow to help a country struggling with disease after millions have died and the disease spreads closer to home.
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A haunting image of a Syrian toddler, facedown and lifeless on the shores of Turkey emerges and the world stops, listens and reacts. But it was too late. He was already dead.

For nearly four years refugees have been fleeing the Syrian war zone. Headlines have grazed my consciousness but like so many others, it took a summer of massive migration and the image of a lifeless child for me to notice the injustice. The horrors of a war I'll never know had been lost among the day's Kardashian headlines.

We live in a world where most people act after its too late. We look at the mental health of a teenager compelled to shoot kindergarteners after the tragedy. We vow to help a country struggling with disease after millions have died and the disease spreads closer to home. We start eating better after the scary diagnosis.

And why shouldn't we? Sometimes prevention seems impossible -- how could we have known? We can't know the grittiness of war, disease and death, until we know the grittiness of war, disease and death. Until then, we can imagine, be empathetic and tell ourselves we can't save the world.

We don't have the time. We don't have the money. We're too busy. We're too old. We're too jaded. We have our own kids/family/problems to worry about. There are too many problems in the world for us to try to help solve them all. We can't house a Syrian refugee. We vote for the good guys and hope for the best.

I am no different. I try to help where I can but too often, do too little. I use too many excuses.

I bought (another) air pollution mask today. For the past couple of weeks, the haze in Singapore has been thick, grey and suffocating.

Farmers in neighboring Sumatra use primitive slash and burn techniques to clear the greatest amount of land, in the shortest amount of time, to plant the greatest amount of palm oil trees and wood-pulp plantations to create the greatest amount Palm oil and paper products for the cheapest price. They are, and for years have been, burning their rainforests and peatlands.

We, in turn, will buy all sorts of products that use this palm oil (and paper products) without realizing the catastrophic consequences of our actions. Palm oil is found in everything from popular processed foods (like Ritz crackers, Pringles chips and Kit Kats) to popular cleaning products (like Palmolive, Colgate and Dial) to cosmetics (like Clinique, Maybelline and Elizabeth Arden). Organic products can contain palm oil. Non-GMO products can contain palm oil. And sometimes, even products that don't list palm oil as an ingredient, contain palm oil. (It can sometimes be masked as "vegetable oil"). Tracking the origins of palm oil can prove to be even more difficult. Paper made from Indonesian plantations is also found in everything -- from product packaging to toilet paper to receipts.

We are smart consumers who demand cheap products. But often it is the cheapest products for which we pay the highest price -- to the environmental and our health.

The issue in Southeast Asia is complicated, involving multiple countries, corporations, political leaders and ordinary mid-sized and small-scale farmers. There is a good deal of finger pointing and blame shifting. There is growing awareness of consumers but it's not enough.

We, the consumers, blame politicians, greedy corporations and China. We blame other developing countries -- who have taken our lead and found that destroying the planet is the quickest and easiest way to get rich. The pollution chokes their people. It is their problem.

We call ourselves developed and tout the falling cost of solar panels and growing number of recycling centers and believe we're making a difference. We give our money to environmental causes and hope our politicians are voting for cap and trade legislation. We hope corporations feel the monetary strain of polluting our air and water. We hope other countries will do something.

Like other tragedies we read about, environmental destruction doesn't really impact our day to day lives. Despite an unusually strong hurricane or unusually warm March, lives move on. Gas stations continue to have gas. Produce -- nearly any kind we want -- continues to stock the shelves at our massive grocery stores despite bees dying by the millions. The beaches on our Caribbean vacation continue to reflect crystal clear images despite the garbage piles floating in our oceans (by some estimates the size of Texas and by others, the size of the continental US). We shake our heads and try to remember our cloth grocery bags and hope our neighbors do the same. We reassure ourselves that water bottles are actually being recycled, our showers are getting shorter and disposing of garbage properly will properly erase its existence.

We talk of our carbon footprint but we can't actually see it the way we can see our boot print in a freak October snowstorm. There's no way to definitively prove what caused the freak storm, the child's cancer or the death of the bees. It's easier to pretend and hope someone else will pick up the slack.

It's easier than changing our own behavior.

I didn't use cloth diapers. I've bought my fair share of bottled water. I forget to bring a cup to Starbuck's more often than I remember. When living greenly is too inconvenient, I ignore the truth. I've always admired those who live inconveniently. I'm in awe of people who never buy new, who never buy pre-packaged, who never think of an excuse.

But the grittiness of this war is now in the air I can't breathe.

The fires in Indonesia rage on. The acrid smell and smoke thickens and hangs, ominously over the region. Ten thousand cases of respiratory infections have been reported since September 4. Children are dying. The impoverished people of Indonesia are currently living in unspeakable circumstances. No pictures have gone viral and so, the headlines continue to talk about the Kardashian girl's lips.

The haze will eventually clear, as it does every year, for the past couple of decades. It will clear and people will forget. Headlines will refresh, people will shake their heads about dying orangutans and go back to wasting paper.

This year, after the haze clears and I can take the mask off, the acrid smell and trail of smoke will linger in my conscious reminding me that one more day of doing too little and choosing convenience, might prove to be too late.

I don't know the answer but something has to be done. Say no to palm oil. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Read labels. The problem is all of ours. Be part of the solution.

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