On Monday, October 23, Tatiana Schlossberg spoke in front of Concord Academy’s Environmental Symposium class to share her research in her recent book, Inconspicuous Consumption, on climate change, environmental justice, and the environmental implications of everyday life. 

Schlossberg comes to CA with a career in climate and science journalism. She is a former New York Times Science and Climate reporter and the author of Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, a title which won the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award in 2020. She has written for the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and Bloomberg, among others. Schlossberg is also the daughter of former United States Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy ’75. 

This year’s Environmental Symposium is focused on environmental justice. Schlossberg was the first of what will be many speakers to share about the topic. On Monday, Schlossberg hoped to highlight the hidden ways that our everyday actions have profound environmental and climate-related impacts. She wrote her book in a way that avoids scientific language and makes concepts digestible and accessible to the general public. Schlossberg’s goal in her environmental justice work is to avoid using “fear or fatalism” to promote awareness and to turn away from an idea of “personal responsibility,” instead encouraging readers to see the whole system of society’s relationship with climate change and justice while bringing attention to the forces that maintain the most social control over it.

To Schlossberg, the most integral force is the internet. Schlossberg noted that the internet is one of the largest and most important systems of energy usage. The internet is a physical system that requires maintenance, climate control, and electricity to function. It currently sits at about 2-3% of global consumption, but its energy usage needs are increasing as the world moves towards a need for more internet data through self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency. Servers require immense amounts of energy to keep cool, which means energy for air conditioning and climate control. And, unfortunately, data centers are often in places where their energy is not coming from renewable sources. The internet is powered by the energy source closest to where it is located, which, for major data hubs in Virginia and Ohio, is almost exclusively fossil fuels. So, while Amazon is one of the world’s largest purchasers of renewable energy, it is not using renewable energy where it actually needs it—effectively minimizing its changes.  

Schlossberg highlighted how rural pollution is another crucial topic in the larger discussion of climate destruction, specifically regarding coal ash. Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal and nearly 100 million tons of ash are produced every year. It can never biodegrade and contains substances toxic to humans like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Although coal ash is present in all 50 states, it is most critically a problem in the American Southeast. Coal ash is stored on river banks, in ponds or behind dams, and, as the Southeast continues to be a hotbed for hurricane paths and heavy precipitation, when rains or flooding happen, the ash is dispersed. Often, collection sites are inappropriately lined or contained, and the toxins from coal ash infiltrate rivers, lakes, drinking and recreational water, and the air. The overall population around coal plants is disproportionately made up of people of color or of lower socio-economic status, and those same groups are thus disproportionately harmed by those oversights. No or very few regulations exist around what power companies must be responsible for, including if they must clean up coal ash. The surrounding populations impacted by these toxins are also at a disadvantage in resisting major companies or advocating for themselves. 

Schlossberg noted that climate change is not just about science, technology or nature, and it is not as simple as recycling or not driving your car. Instead, it is about the people, culture, history, and systems of society. Addressing climate change with the thought, care, and effort that it requires will be one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes. It will demand behavioral changes, litigation changes, and the cooperation of millions of people across all varieties of difference.

Photo courtesy of Concord Academy