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Individual action counts: it’s still up to you to do something about climate change
Increasingly, we’re hearing that individual action is insignificant relative to needed political change, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook
By Mark Hanson
There is one statistic easing pangs of guilt for people who feel they are not doing enough to fight climate change: About 71% of greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015 came from only 100 companies. Increasingly, the message is: Stop worrying about yourself and take the fight to the corporations and policymakers who refuse to stop them!
But you’re not off the hook yet. Individual action matters for a number of reasons: It stimulates and supports social action. It is central to honoring our moral duties to respect life. And it can be a force for social change in subtle or unexpectedly powerful ways.
Here are four arguments to keep riding your bike and doing all the other green things that each of us should do.
Argument 1: It’s Them and Me
It is disempowering to realize that most of the harm from climate change primarily comes from relatively few actors. In the face of this knowledge, it would seem, our individual actions don’t really change a thing. Social change, on a massive scale, is what we need. As author Derrick Jensen bluntly states in his essay, “Forget Shorter Showers”: “Personal change does not equal social change.”
He’s right, but only to a point. In fact, the individual and the social are intertwined in two crucial ways. First, enough individuals making changes does equal social change. And individual actions can have a ripple effect that we should not discount.
Indeed, there is no avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change without major changes on a global scale. But that starts with campaigning and voting for politicians who will act on climate change, shopping less and more ethically, and doing what you can to disrupt business as usual.
Each of our behaviors affects those close to us. People have a strong desire to fit in and build bonds with like-minded people. Once two of my friends installed solar panels, I did, too. Hopefully, when people see the panels on my roof, they will consider it as well. Everything we do is a signal to others about how we think the world should be.
Second, collective action doesn’t happen without individual action. Jensen is right that, “Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.” What we really need to do, he argues, is to confront and take down the political systems that have gotten us into such a situation.
Indeed, there is no avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change without major changes on a global scale. But that starts with campaigning and voting for politicians who will act on climate change, shopping less and more ethically, and doing what you can to disrupt business as usual. In other words, social change starts with you.
Argument 2: It’s Just the Right Thing to Do
Even if you learned that turning off the lights when leaving a room will not make a measurable difference in reducing climate change, would you then feel free to leave lights on all the time? If you truly believe that doing so is wasteful, then probably not.
Most people’s moral sensibilities tell them that we have an obligation to do the right thing, even if nobody else does it or its impact is small. And the right thing to do is to respect other life forms and not waste resources, as you are able.
The upshot is that our small acts absolutely can make a difference in unexpected and possibly powerful ways.
Our moral responsibilities may also extend to future generations. Philosophers may quibble about such things, but ask yourself this: Even if your grandchildren aren’t born yet, would they be out of line to blame you for not doing what you could have done to protect our planet?
It is a matter of moral integrity. If you are not willing to live in a way that is true to your convictions and invite others to do so as well, who will? The right thing to do is the right thing to do. Period.
Argument 3: Be a Rock in the River
One hopeful metaphor for thinking about the effects of our actions comes from philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. Just as particles in a river can combine to change its course, our “small” acts can alter the course of climate change.
In life, as in rivers, everything changes. To quote Moore: “Our work and the work of every person who loves this world — this one — is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood.”
The upshot is that our small acts absolutely can make a difference in unexpected and possibly powerful ways. Our individual choices join with others’ choices to disrupt the flow of destructive ways of living. Small acts are a witness, inspiring others and contributing to a momentum of change that can trigger a social change faster than we anticipate. That’s what we need. Soon.
Argument 4: Channel Your Inner Greta Thunberg
Once in a while someone comes along who dispenses with the calculus of whether their sacrifices will amount to a hill of beans and just says, “Enough!” And thank God. One such person is the Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg.
I’m guessing she — or other young activists who came before her — has little time for those who say that individual choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Who would have thought that one schoolgirl sitting on the steps of the Swedish parliament building every Friday with a simple sign would change the world? Good thing she didn’t let the “smallness” of her individual act discourage her. The world is changed because she sat — alone.
Sometimes you just have to shrug off all the moral calculus and just say enough.
Some of us choose to bury our heads in the sand and continue shopping. Some of us make halting steps as an increasingly grimmer picture of future life for our children emerges.
But sometimes you just have to shrug off all the moral calculus and just say, “Enough.” Will my solar panels make enough of a difference to justify my sacrifice in buying them? Stop thinking. Just take action now.
We all must do what we can — in our homes, our communities and our countries. Writing in Orion Magazine years ago, author and climate activist Bill McKibben captured the “both-and” approach we need: “If 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough.”
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