Until you have had a frazzled morning, forgotten your reusable cup, and bought a tea in a paper cup, have run to class, and received looks of askance from your fellow altruists, you may not fully understand the weight of superficial environmental guilt.
Of course, my fellow students and I care deeply about our impact on the planet, and we do what we can to reduce that impact, but we are unfortunately prone to tunnel vision. The value of cutting back on plastics, not using straws, and carrying a KeepCup everywhere should not be dismissed, but neither should the reality that you and I are not personally responsible for global environmental damages.
Placing the weight of responsibility for climate change on individuals shifts the onus off of the large corporations who are most responsible and prevents any meaningful change from occurring. This is the same process of shifting responsibility that occurs when nations in the developed world critique the developing world for their emissions. Those who are most responsible for climate change are those facing the least social pressure to remedy it; this is partially because grand social narratives are crafted and promoted by the normative powers in society.
All this to say, I do occasionally use a disposable cup when pressed, and I don’t believe that it makes me less environmentally conscious. Those of us who have chosen to shoulder the burden of witnessing environmental damage and trying to remedy it have enough to deal with, without tearing each other down over the little things. Our consumer power can only go so far, and to a great extent, we cannot avoid the social infrastructure that surrounds us. By this I mean, it is difficult to make environmentally conscious decisions when you are not living in an environmentally conscious society. In fact, it is a mark of privilege when one can afford to buck societal expectations of consumption. We do the best that we can in the face of overwhelming pressure.
So when you see someone using a disposable cup don’t assume they are careless about the Earth. The hipster with the KeepCup is not going to single-handedly save the Earth. We try, and we live, and we drink our coffee whichever way. These smaller issues are tactics of distraction; don’t fall for them.