As a new vegetarian, my most devastating loss was Lucky Charms marshmallows. The delicious treats, which I would dutifully pick out from bags of bland cereal, unfortunately contain gelatin, an animal product. Unable to bear the thought of abandoning my favorite snack, I turned to an ethically questionable solution: purchasing off-brand dehydrated marshmallows and scratching out the ingredients label. I considered my decision a spin-off of Schrodinger’s Cat Experiment — Schrodinger’s Marshmallows, if you will. Unless I checked the ingredients label, they would forever live in the in-between, simultaneously vegetarian and not.
Looking back, this “solution” only made things worse. It demonstrated that I cared more about the positive feeling that I got from believing that I was taking a moral path than protecting animals and the environment. By switching from Lucky Charms to Schrodinger’s Marshmallows, I did nothing to make the world a better place. I only made myself feel better. This got me thinking: Was abandoning the treat altogether the only solution? Is being good all-or-nothing? The great challenge of our lives is being ethical in a world where everything is somewhat immoral. Thus, we are forced to decide where to follow our morals and where to give in. For me, the answer lies in non-absolutism — being forgiving of oneself while making incremental changes for good.
The difficult truth is immorality permeates every aspect of daily life. The fresh food shipped to our grocery stores accounts for devastating amounts of carbon emissions, affordable fashion is often built on the backs of poorly paid, mistreated workers and even the seemingly harmless act of investing in cryptocurrency contributes to enormous energy use. Often, we have no choice but to engage in unavoidable but nonetheless harmful activities. The NBC show “The Good Place,” a sitcom centered around four people navigating the afterlife, captured this idea perfectly when the characters discovered it had become too difficult to be good in the modern world, explained in the show through the act of buying your grandmother roses. As Decider explained, “the roses (one character) bought were through a cell phone made in a sweatshop, the roses filled with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, transported in a way that left a massive carbon imprint and his money went to a ‘racist, billionaire CEO who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals.’ ” In short, every action has endless unseen negative implications.
Faced with this difficult truth, I turned to research and came up with new guidelines for how I can maximize my own capacity for good, without being overwhelmed by the complexity of doing so in the modern world.
Something is always better than nothing. Too many people avoid vegetarianism because they can’t bear to sacrifice a certain food — perhaps the “Spicy With” at Josiah’s, or the beloved chicken finger Friday at the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall. But if more people tried their best (and had a couple cheat meals when necessary), the difference in carbon emissions would be astounding. One 2019 study in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that if everyone in the U.S. reduced consumption of meat by 25% and supplemented their diet with plant-based proteins, American greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 82 million metric tons. Similar positive effects would come with countless other lifestyle changes that would make the world a better place. Even if we all gave just a little, we could change a lot.
However, I also learned that focusing solely on personal impact is sometimes harmful in and of itself, as it can serve as a distraction from bigger factors contributing to an issue. One major example of this is the anti-littering movement. Large corporations like Coca-Cola and Nestle have long backed nonprofits like Keep America Beautiful, which runs ad campaigns shaming the individual litterbug and urging the public to clean up their cities. In reality, this message wrongly shifts blame onto the consumer and away from the true perpetrators: the companies who actually produced all of that trash. Cases like this are not uncommon, and I’ve learned to be wary of spending my energy only on personal impact. The best attempts to make a difference tackle both the small-scale and systemic aspects of an issue.
I’ve since abandoned my Schrodinger’s Marshmallows (which turned out to have gelatin anyway), and returned to the tried-and-true Lucky Charms. As simple as it may seem, making a commitment to non-absolutist efforts — being gentle with myself and others while still following my moral instincts — is truly the best, and most intuitive, path forward.
Eva Schiller ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.