When Tatiana Schlossberg started writing about climate change for The New York Times science desk, in 2016, people kept asking her for a road map through the often conflicting information about how one’s personal habits harm the environment. Roughly three and a half years later, she is publishing Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. Given that her subjects include the history of air-conditioning and the complications of coal-ash disposal, her book is a surprisingly readable explanation of how different areas of our daily consumption contribute to the climate crisis.
She examines subjects as wide-ranging as the ecological impact of Bitcoin and how the lithium battery in your iPhone is powered by cobalt mined in unsafe, destructive conditions in Congo.
Schlossberg’s style is direct and at times playful, but she did not want to write a breezy public-service spot about how to “green your life” by going to the farmers’ market and buying re-usable bags. Inconspicuous Consumption is for readers who care about their environment, both immediate and wider, and want things explained to them succinctly but with nuance. She does not sugarcoat the realities of our decisions. After describing the lose-lose of either streaming films on energy-sucking gaming consoles or buying a new, more energy-efficient device, she writes, “it turns out there aren’t really very many satisfying answers. Sorry.”
The ecological impact of Bitcoin.
Schlossberg, 29, who left The New York Times in 2017, is the daughter of Caroline Kennedy and the granddaughter of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. We met shortly after she returned from Martha’s Vineyard, where she had been speaking on a panel at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, and where her family has long had a home. (She flies JetBlue and buys carbon offsets for all her flights.)
She arrived at the Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center in a cotton T-shirt, silk skirt (no synthetic materials), and items she has owned for several years. Despite her slight frame, her poise and posture make her seem surprisingly larger. She sat erect and held her hands neatly in her lap like a Victorian portrait. Only occasionally, when thinking about how to succinctly explain how my streaming Fleabag in New York City can create deadly deposits of coal ash in Virginia, did she begin fingering the trio of pendant necklaces she wears layered and tangled, gifts from her husband, George Moran, a urology resident at Columbia, and her father, Edwin Schlossberg, an artist and designer. She likes them, she says, because they remind her of planets.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Chloe Malle: In your introduction you say, “I also noticed that it was really hard to bring climate change down to scale, to make sense of it within the context of our own lives.” Is that what sparked the book? Making sense of how our personal habits contribute to the wider existential threat of the climate crisis?
Tatiana Schlossberg: When I started writing about climate change and the environment at the Times, I got a lot of questions like “Why is red meat bad?” or “What can I do with my diet?” And once I started scratching at that I realized that there was so much more than the things that we have often heard about, which are red meat and air travel, and that everything that we do is embedded in this larger story about consumption and pollution.
How my streaming Fleabag in New York City can create deadly deposits of coal ash in Virginia.
But I also thought that there was a big problem with the scale of the conversation. It was either plastic bottles or it’s the energy grid. So, when I talk about wanting to bring it down to our lives, I think part of the reason that it has taken a long time for people to really care about this issue is because that doesn’t make sense to people. I think people felt like, “Well, how could that really be, that all I’m being told to do is change my light bulb, but then I hear that we need to be on 100 percent renewables in 10 years?”
C.M.: The book’s divided into four sections: “Technology and the Internet,” “Food,” “Fashion,” and “Fuel.” How did you decide on those four, and then the various subcategories?
T.S.: Part of it is agriculture and transportation and electricity. That’s, like, 75 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, so I felt like those were areas that I really needed to get into. And the Internet was just really interesting, because I think it’s very counterintuitive to people that that has any environmental impact, because we think of it as in the cloud or wireless, or whatever it is. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of the same realm as the climate crisis or the environment. And I hadn’t learned anything really about fashion, until I wrote a story about different fibers for the Times, and so then that kind of opened up a whole universe of that to me.
C.M.: There’s so much conflicting information about how to lower your carbon footprint, and you’re very up-front about the fact that there is not one clear solution. I appreciated that honesty and nuance, but by the end of the book I was like, “Well, I’m screwed! I can’t eat fish. I can’t buy any workout clothing. I shouldn’t be streaming The Crown. Did you get push-back from your editor, or did you have to check yourself to make it more actionable advice in terms of how to live your life?
T.S.: I definitely got a lot of requests for more solutions. But I was pretty insistent from the beginning that I’m not writing a guide about how to live your life, because I don’t feel like I want to be in the position of telling people what to do.
It’s a tricky balance to strike, but what I wanted to get across was individual consumption matters, because all of these systems contribute in major ways to climate change and environmental pollution, but individual behavior doesn’t matter, because that’s not enough to solve the problem. And seven billion people don’t change their behavior without some kind of outside push, and usually that comes in the form of regulation, or it comes in market changes that maybe come through regulation. So, I think that the more actionable things to do that I write about are voting and not supporting companies that aren’t, at the very least, transparent.
C.M.: Has your family’s political legacy affected your career path or how you’ve decided where to allocate your time professionally?
T.S.: Well, I do come from a political family, but I also come from a family of writers. And my grandmother was a reporter, and that’s how she met my grandfather. She was the inquiring camera girl, I think, in Washington. And, you know, my grandfather wrote books, and won a Pulitzer, and both my parents are writers, so I feel like I’m carrying a different aspect of my family tradition.
“Well, I do come from a political family, but I also come from a family of writers.”
And I do think there are lots of different ways to serve and be, and people should do the things they are good at, and I feel like this is at least what I like, if not what I’m good at. And so this feels like a way for me to serve. I’m very proud to be a member of the press, and I think having a free press is essential to a functioning democracy. So, I feel it’s not public service, in the traditional sense of that word, but I do feel like I am serving in a way.
C.M.: How do you combat the misinformation around sustainability, both from the media trying to oversimplify it and companies exaggerating or misleading customers about their commitment to sustainability? And how does that make your job more difficult?
T.S.: Yeah, greenwashing [unsubstantiated or misleading claims about a product’s sustainability] is a huge problem, as are things like focusing on something like a plastic straw, because I think it can inspire backsliding in other areas. You feel like “O.K., I did that, so it’s O.K. for me to now buy X.” So, it’s really hard, and I appreciate how difficult it is, having tried to report on this a lot.
What actually needs to happen is that we need to account for the supply chain before we make these determinations about or advertise that information. So, what I hope that I can do is help people understand that you can’t really shop your way out of this problem. If some company is telling you, “This will fix it,” you should have a second take on that.
C.M.: You said there’s no way to write about everything about the food system, that you’d have to be the Robert Caro of American agriculture. How do people sift through all the information on all of these subjects, but particularly on food?
T.S.: First of all, there are a million studies that all say a million different things. But one study that I read said that the diet with the least impact would be mostly plants, and then farmed mollusks. So, that’s one approach. In general, I think small farms, small producers, because it’s not on the factory scale, may have a smaller impact, or at least it’s going to force you to eat more seasonally, which means less transportation and refrigeration.
If you really are interested in personally lessening your impact, I think eating less meat, eating less dairy. I don’t think there’s really any argument about that. But it’s hard. I’ve probably eaten red meat less than 10 times this year, but I eat ice cream, like, every day. So it can be paralyzing.
C.M.: As someone who likes fashion but has severe climate anxiety, I found that chapter very unsettling, because I like to pin my hopes on certain companies that I feel are doing a good job being sustainable. But now I feel like a lot of that is marketing, and I just shouldn’t be buying anything. Are there any companies that you were really impressed by, or that responded well to your inquiries?
T.S.: I was actually really impressed with Stella McCartney. I think she is really committed. There are companies where certain aspects of things that they’re doing are really great. I think for Everlane to be using so much less water for their denim production is really great. For Levi’s to be doing it as well is huge. But nobody is necessarily fixing their entire portfolio, so we just need to encourage all of that.
“I’ve probably eaten red meat less than 10 times this year, but I eat ice cream, like, every day.”
C.M.: You have a startling chapter about how our insatiable demand for cheap cashmere is basically ruining the Mongolian landscape. Does it make any difference to buy expensive cashmere? Is it better to be buying Loro Piana or is that just as bad as fast fashion?
T.S.: I think the problem is the general proliferation of it. For example, the demand for cashmere has exacerbated the problem. So, I don’t really know if the fancy companies make a bigger effort to have better suppliers. There’s a company called Naadam, and I think that they work directly with herders. So, that is maybe a better model, but I actually don’t know. Stella McCartney only uses recycled or re-purposed cashmere, because they found that that had the biggest impact of anything in the supply chain, which is pretty remarkable.
C.M.: You end the book by telling readers that the most important thing they can do is vote. Do you think that politicians are taking climate more seriously, at least on the Democratic side?
T.S.: Yes, the fact that most of the Democratic candidates for president have a climate plan, and that Mayor Pete is talking about soil health on the stump, is so exciting to me. I, of course, want there to be more. I think there’s been a lot of, like, “Oh, we need to be net zero, or carbon neutral, by 2050.” But not a lot of description about what the next 5 to 10 years look like, and that’s where I think we really need to be focusing.
C.M.: How do you personally stop from feeling apoplectic about your daily consumption and general climate anxiety?
T.S.: It’s hard, I mean, going to the grocery store is … (deep sigh). I cook a lot, because I like to, but also it’s a way to reduce your impact. Like I said, it can be totally paralyzing. Feeling like I need to go out and present myself to the world when my book comes out, but I don’t want to buy any new clothes. So, balancing those things is really hard, and I try to feel like “Well, I’m doing what I can, and I wrote this book.” And not that that lets me off the hook for other things, but that’s a way for me to be contributing to solving this problem.
I think the most important thing for me to do, because there is so much I can’t control, is just to do less. Like, I try not to order things online. I have the time and the ability to go to a store.
Things like that, that are small, and I’m not under the illusion that that is enough. Or that that’s going to solve the problem. But I want to live in line with my values, and so I try to do that.
Chloe Malle is a writer based in New York