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The Danger of Relying On Individuals To Fix Climate Change


The world knows about the long-term, large-scale changes predicted by scientists in the never-ending debate around climate change. But climate change is already permeating our daily lives as seen in grocery prices spiking, storm losses leaving homeowners uninsured, lakes disappearing, drinking water supply at risk, and an ongoing list of other changes. Actions can be taken every day to reduce individual ecological footprint they leave on the natural environment and its resources. “Ecological footprint” is defined as the measure of human demand on nature and compares human consumption of natural resources with earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them. The debate of whether or not addressing climate change and other environmental issues through individual action is what some call “the individualization of responsibility” , with others pushing that “perhaps the best way to think about [political consumerism] is to consider it as one element of many in a strategy for addressing climate change."

However, the central significance of individual lifestyle changes is revolving them around greater political activism.

When I turned 16-years-old, I read a book about the meat industry and how it affects our bodies as well as the environment. As referenced in class, Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore’s Dilemma poses questions to the average person’s diet. I read about slaughterhouses, factory farms, and animal cruelty. I conducted extensive research on the subject and found the adverse effects of these occurrences impacting nutrition, pollution, and morality. I learned that a meat-based diet, although common and okay in moderation, can also be the cause of various health issues such as heart disease, high cholesterol, or even cancer. I learned that the fossil fuel emission is related to livestock "care," such as methane and nitrous oxide. I learned that most slaughterhouses do not follow the humane methods set forth by the USDA. I read more books, searched more websites, and finally came to the greatest conclusion I could: I became vegetarian, feeling proud that I could make such a life-changing decision based on facts and research. Now, nearly four years later, I am struck by the debate about environmental sustainability both politically and conversationally.

According to the Pew Research Center, most people think lifestyle changes are necessary to reduce effects of climate change worldwide. After all, environmental challenges are simply the collective expression of individual action. With seven billion people on Earth and counting, humankind’s impact on the environment is immense. Although several hundreds of studies have been done, no concrete answers have been found. Some of the most influential and commonly used frameworks for analyzing pro-environmental behavior are early US linear progression models; altruism, empathy and prosocial behavior models. For example, environmentalist and professor Lynn White Jr. argues that the historical root of the environmental issues we are facing today date back to Christianity altering the relationship between people and nature. Where other religions see nature and humanity as a cyclical process, Christianity views nature as one of man’s possessions, perpetuating the behaviors of a capitalist, consumerist culture.

According to Copeland and Smith, throughout history, people have politicized the market when national governments did not or could not address their political and social grievances. Combining both indirect environmental actions (that include donating money, political activities, educational outreach, environmental writing, etc.) with direct environmental actions (such as recycling, driving less, or buying organic food) questions what impact people have in the environmental movement. Likewise, the public wonders whether or not short-lived changes make any difference regarding en masse individual action. When I was 16, I never would have imagined becoming vegetarian if I had not heard the conversation being facilitated elsewhere. Many great ideas or habits begin with seeing what others may be doing or hearing what conversations they may be having, in both a capitalistic sense as well as a lifestyle sense. Knowing that someone else can live through a significant lifestyle change proves that anyone can do so along with a little bit of research.

Colin Beavan’s book No Impact Man has been a controversial point of contention within the environmental movement; seen as both “alternative hedonism”-- a reconceptualization of the “good life” that avoids unduly damaging the natural world -- and also a kind of “eco-stunt” -- an attempt to garner significant media coverage about positive environmental behaviors. However, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert criticized Beavan’s book for being a capitalistic scam about being environmentally friendly rather than just living sustainably. Rather than taking the time to speak with his fellow New York apartment-building neighbors, Beavan decided to write a book about how “sustainable” he could be for a year. Kolbert ends her critique of Beavan’s book saying that

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. (Kolbert).

The interesting distinction here is not just the individualization of responsibility but the call to action politically. Essentially, me being vegetarian makes a marginal difference on the massive problems that are occurring environmentally. However, if I were to be vegetarian and an activist, persuading people to also become vegetarian or vegan for the sake of decreasing their ecological footprint, as well as demanding a meat tax from my local Congressman, I would make more of a difference. Professor Wapner and Willoughby argue that acting at a micro level to reduce family size and consume less is almost dogma among environmentalists, there are reasons to question their admonitions, or at least to specify the conditions under which such activities would genuinely make a difference in terms of environmental well-being. The root of this explanation is that even if an individual decides to make a huge lifestyle change or decision, it does not automatically ensure environmental well being.

Individual climate action is important. It’s easy to see little things like buying organic vegetables, using a reusable coffee cup, biking to work, taking shorter showers, and buying recycled paper as so trivial that they won’t make a difference. But sustainable lifestyle choices do make a difference.They save energy and resources, therefore emitting less carbon. Yes, the impact is small, but it is something tangible, and it adds up. They tell companies that customers are interested in being green, which will help influence their business decisions.

They inspire other people around them to do the same, helping to normalize these actions and multiply the effect. And finally, they allow for a self-gratifying feeling that a little difference can make an impact in the long run. But it’s not enough to change the system.

Unfortunately, individual climate action in our homes and shopping carts is not going to cut it. Firstly, there is realistically not enough time to persuade every person to change their lifestyle. And secondly, even if this miraculously did happen, it still wouldn’t be enough to solve climate change. Climate change is a systemic global issue and needs collective action by multiple institutions to tackle it. And it doesn’t stop there. All the parts of our carbon footprint that we are responsible for like our eating and shopping habits, where we live, how we heat our home, how we travel – are all directly impacted by things outside our control. The business strategies of companies, the policies of local and national government, and of course the lottery of birth (where we happened to be born and what kind of family we were born into) all impact our choices. We all have choices, but what’s possible and what’s convenient is dictated by companies, governments, and other institutions.