We’re all on a lifteboat - that’s leaking. I start bailing out water with my trusty refillable mug. But I know if I’m smug, or Myrtle starts moaning “it’s pointless”, no one will join me. I quietly keep at my work, even though it doesn’t seem to be helping, because, I hope, it must be helping. After many scoops, I notice that other people are bailing too. We manage to slow the flooding of the boat enough that young Ichabod is able to get a decent patch on one of the leaks, giving Sujata time to try to find a longer term fix, while Iffat convinces everyone to join in on the bailing. After hours of bailing water out of the boat, we are making a small dent. We are exhausted, but we are a team. Then Sujata exclaims that she’s figured out how to siphon water out of the boat if we all act together. We leap into action. Soon the water level in the boat is receding, and lo and behold, we sight land.
The stories we hear, the stories we believe, have such a deep impact on us. Some stories can make or break us - just think of the damage done by belief in Bernie Maddoff’s Ponzi scheme. Similarly, the story promoted by big oil and conservative politicians - that there was not enough scientific evidence to start reducing our carbon emissions - has caused uncountable financial damage and human suffering. Recently, more details have come out about Exxon’s in depth understanding, as early as the 1970s, of the climate crisis and the devastation it would bring. But as we know, Exxon continued to downplay or deny the climate impacts of fossil fuel burning for many subsequent decades. This intentional muddying of the waters by Exxon, and others, changed the societal story about climate change enough that we’ve delayed climate action so long that we are now sitting on the edge of a knife. We can only imagine how gentle the transition to a net zero world may have been, and the climate disasters we could have avoided, if we’d started reducing emissions in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s or 2010s. As an climate change activist in those decades, I can remember being routinely dismissed as an idealistic dreamer. At least, our cultural story about the veracity of, and need to act on, man-made climate change and the biodiversity crisis have changed.
But acknowledgement of the existence of these crises has not uncovered a clear roadmap. Disagreements swirl around the “right” course of action. Some tell a story that technology will save us, others that the free market will. Some call for new policies, others for consumers to change their habits. All the while, our emissions have continued to rise and wilderness has continued to be destroyed. But it is not a competition between policies, technology, and individual action. All these must surge ahead if we are to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C and to reverse the loss of biodiversity. This is my version of the story. But I am not alone.
The Global Biodiversity Framework, signed by 200 nations, states “The framework aims to catalyze, enable and galvanize urgent and transformative action by governments, subnational and local governments, and with the involvement of all of society to halt and reverse biodiversity loss”. The UN has a whole new project devoted to getting individuals to reduce emissions called the Act Now campaign. In addition, scientists are increasingly calling for all of us to change our consumption patterns. The International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC whose work underpins the Paris Treaty, has been documenting the ability of dietary and transportation changes to reduce climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists sums it all up: “The best policy ideas in the world aren’t worth much if we don’t have activists, experts, and everyday people fighting for change. From school groups to churches; from corporate boardrooms to mayors and local leaders: we need action.”
Nonetheless, I regularly come across statements that urging eco-friendly behaviors is, at best, useless and, at worst, damaging. It deflates me every time. These negative stories may well nudge some folks into not making eco-conscious choices. Just this past week I’ve come across three articles scolding a focus on lifestyle choices to combat climate change. Let me go through them in some detail in the hopes that it will armor us all against such nay saying.
In an otherwise excellent article, Rebecca Solnit states that the majority of us don’t need to change much to avert climate change. We don’t need to give up our luxuries. It is true that the poorest 50% of the global population don’t need to reduce their emissions to arrive at a “fair share”. A “fair share” is an estimate of the amount of carbon each human can emit in 2030 such that warming will stay at or below 1.5 degrees C. The world’s poorest half emits, on average, just 1/3 of a fair share. At the other end of the spectrum, those with incomes in the top 10% emit, on average 11 times a fair share of greenhouse gases. The remaining 40% of us emit more than twice a fair share. So yes, on a global scale, 50% of us don’t have luxuries we need to give up. But as an American or European reading this article, I’d be misled to think that most of my country people don’t need to give up luxuries. The median income in the US in 2021 was $45,470 per worker. That means 50% of US earners were $7,000 or more above the cutoff for being in the wealthiest 10% on the globe. Somewhere close to 60% of Americans are in this wealthiest 10% bracket and need to cut their emissions by 90% (at least) to be in line with their fair share. Roughly 35% more of Americans are in the “middle 40%” of incomes and need to halve their emissions to reach a fair share. That leaves just 5% of Americans with an estimated carbon output below the 2030 target. And this is just the 2030 target. We need to get to zero emissions by 2050.
So by stating that “most of us don’t need to give up our luxuries”, the author is in danger of misleading much of her American or European readership about the need to reduce. What’s more, that is only the carbon story, and says nothing of the fact that our meat habit is at the heart of biodiversity loss. I can see why cutting your emissions or your meat intake may not be a great political slogan, but those of us who write about it need to be honest and not mislead the public into thinking that they can swap out a few light bulbs and think the job is done. Beating climate change and reversing the loss of biodiversity is going to mean lifestyle changes for the vast majority of us in the US and Europe. There is no getting around it and it is irresponsible to say otherwise.
Another common complaint about individual action is that our emissions or consumption implications are not our fault. For instance, as a caveat to an article he’d authored, Daniel Bressler said “… that people shouldn’t take their per-person mortality emissions too personally … Our emissions are very much a function of the technology and culture of the place that we live.” His research found that the impact of the average emissions from 3 American’s would lead to one death from climate change. How can I not take that personally?? Am I not responsible for my garbage and my emissions? I feel deep inside that I am. And, yes, of course, our emissions are inextricably linked to the technology and culture of our regions … but is it not our responsibility to try to change those things through personal actions?
It is our eco-friendly actions that are driving our society towards actually solving the climate and biodiversity crises. Without the financial, political, and cultural support we lend towards these issues no investor, and only the very rare politician, is going to stick their neck out and try to save us. Eco-friendly technology is only invested in when it is clear that a society will purchase green products. Likewise eco-friendly legislation and policy is only enacted when it has overwhelming popular support, and it has to be overwhelming in order to overcome corporate interests.
Individual action is the foundation of social learning, which is essential for the large scale change we need to see enacted. A person engaging in eco-friendly actions will likely never know their habits are rippling outwards, but eco-friendly actions do change perceptions, culture, business practices, and policy. Of course the technological roll out of green energy and the policies of our government are essential, but these intertwine with our personal actions and shove the massive beast of our society towards a mildly saner path. Phew. I think I need a vacation.
“Wait till I get going!” (to borrow from Vizinni in the Princess Bride) A third example of lifestyle-advocacy-bashing rose before my eyes this week, though it was written a few years ago. Anders Levermann wrote “… these demands for individual action paralyze people, thereby preventing the large-scale change we urgently need.” That statement quite literally makes me squirm in my seat. As I said before it is not personal action nor governmental policy nor technology alone that will reverse the damage, rather it is the confluence of all efforts that will make a difference. And as so many activists will share with you, making small changes is empowering. Individual action is in fact in direct opposition to paralyzation. Personal actions often lead to more changes. Some folks go on to protest, to work on passing legislation, or to building community awareness by sharing their discoveries with their spouses, coworkers, or friends. What is Levermann expecting most people to do if they free them selves from this burden of purchasing ethically? Most people aren’t going to become become lobbyest or battery researchers, but even if they do, they are still consumers whose dollars and behavior matter.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that we need as many people as possible to live in eco-conscious ways. A recent study concurred with many previous ones and concluded that household consumption is responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of total resource use, in affluent countries. There is no getting around the fact that it the lifestyles of the globally well-offs that are the main problem.
So let me summarize. Contrary to what some authors would have you believe:
Individuals’ eco-actions are reducing climate change and biodiversity damage.
Individuals’ eco-actions are influencing policy and technological developments.
Individuals’ eco-actions are empowering us.
Individuals’ eco-actions are changing society.
Individuals’ eco-actions are a moral imperative (in my opinion, at least).
Individuals’ eco-actions are called for by international treaties.
And the bonus prize for those who step up: individual action allows us to be at peace, knowing that are we are making a difference.
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Thank you for anchoring the position of individual responsibility. This piece speaks to a place in my heart that needs to hear it.