In conversation, the looming spectre of climate change is often followed by a slew of suggestions: recycling, eating plant-based diets, and using less fossil fuels per person, just to name a few. These tips for “going green” on a person-by-person level, often summarized as “individual actions,” have always been a part of the climate movement. The idea of choosing more “environmentally friendly” actions was introduced as early as the first Earth Day in 1970. Environmental actions and public service announcements have often included these calls to the individual—even those that don’t deal directly with climate change. The classic Smokey campaign entreated that “only you can prevent wildfires” while the famous (and tone-deaf) “Crying Indian” commercial called on the public to step up to stop environmental destruction, saying that if “People start pollution, people can stop it.” The role of an individual’s choices has been deemed crucial to the fate of the Earth.
Today, however, individual actions have begun to leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. In the face of increasing damage to the environment and a worsening climate crisis, and in a world where almost three-fourths of all emissions come from just 100 companies, being proud of oneself for recycling or using a cloth shopping bag can seem out of touch at best and egotistical at worst. And, in an era in which so-called “armchair activism” is a controversial issue, bragging about reusable straws or turning your lights off when you leave the room isn’t always a great move. While individual actions from environmentally-minded people definitely have a positive effect, they’re increasingly seen as a sort of polar opposite of—or even an obstacle to—collective activism and pressure on governments, companies, and power structures to fight climate change and create a more environmentally just world. The refrain “individual action won’t change anything” on social media comes up wherever tips for “going green” are found, in one breath criticizing the optimism of such public messaging and in another pointing the blame at larger forces for the state of the Earth today. This question of significance hovers like a grey cloud over many environmental campaigns right now, engendering the sinking feeling that individual action may have lost its relevance.
The idea of individual action as a distraction is meant to reframe the conversation around climate change, and to shift the blame from the individual onto the government and corporations—entities with the most power and impact on climate change, the environment, and the world.
In 2019, climatologist Michael Mann shared an opinion letter with USA Today regarding individual climate action:
“Though many of these actions are worth taking, and colleagues and friends of ours are focused on them in good faith, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable. This new obsession with personal action, though promoted by many with the best of intentions, plays into the hands of polluting interests by distracting us from the systemic changes that are needed.”
It is absolutely true that the changes needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change are bigger than any one person can enact. In the U.S., the country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels and plastics form a network of actions that is out of reach for many people. There’s a sense, too, that these individual actions make people feel better, and assuage or reframe their guilt. Some feel that this is the goal of big corporations— to place the fault of industries or systems onto the individual, and to convince individuals that the onus of climate change is on them. The signs are there: the idea of a “carbon footprint” was popularized by a BP advertising campaign some twenty years ago.
Yet the impact of personal action is not completely negligible, especially in a country like the United States, one of the world’s biggest polluters and climate change contributors. As members of a culture that has a greater impact on the state of the environment, our actions, even when small, carry weight. Shaming one another for individual actions, or the lack thereof, can be divisive, too, sometimes changing the conversation from “how can we work together to fight climate change” to “how can we fight one another for not helping enough.”
Additionally, a critical part of individual action is to exemplify a more environmentally friendly way of living to our friends, family, and peers. A 2017 survey out of Cardiff University found that, of around 400 people surveyed who knew someone who flew less due to concerns about climate change, half made a choice based on that person to reduce their flying themselves. When people position themselves as leaders to their peers in changing their lifestyle in an environmentally conscious way, they can create a rippling impact in the communities to which they belong.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was more than just a day for asking people to go green. It was a day of protest, stemming from the legacy of social action of the past decade, that would later evolve into an even more powerful environmental movement. The historically significant event, which was once decried as communist propaganda, left a long legacy including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The organizers set out to bolster environmental consciousness, and to get individual people talking about environmentalism and incorporating ecological perspectives into their lives.
In an article last year, Jason Mark, editor of Sierra Magazine, expressed that today, it’s still possible to aim for both individual and collective action.
“It seems to me that scorning the importance of individual lifestyle changes is in danger of becoming an overcorrection—the reaction an overreaction. Yes, it’s true that taking personal responsibility for climate change is insufficient to address the crisis; and it’s equally true that individual action is essential to the climate justice equation. While collective action is invaluable, it’s also an incomplete strategy for political change,” he said. “Ultimately, a personal action versus political action binary is unhelpful. The environmental movement needs to sustain a way to do both: agitate and organize for systemic change while also still encouraging individual behavior changes.”
Individual action and protest, in the context of climate action and ecology, don’t need to conflict. A person can attend protests, put pressure on their local and national governments to make better environmental choices, and choose to buy more environmentally friendly products at the same time. Individual actions, as long as they are not held up as the be-all and end-all of environmental impact, do not take away from the power of protest and working together as a group, and have a net positive impact. Even if they don’t save the entire world, a single action taken means one less plastic bag, one less flight, or one less gallon of gas. Concentrating on individual action as the enemy of collective action isn’t going to aid the fight against the climate crisis. Rather, discouraging people from individual action just removes one of the precious few outlets they have to impact the world around them.
Goldstein, J. (2019, June 07). Individual Actions Can’t Solve Climate Change. Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/individual-actions-cant-solve-climate-change/
Mann, M. E., & Brockopp, J. (2019, June 3). You can’t save the climate by going vegan. Corporate polluters must be held accountable. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/06/03/climate-change-requires-collective-action-more-than-single-acts-column/1275965001/.
Waxman, O. B. (2019, April 19). Earth Day Founder on What to Know About the First Earth Day. Time. https://time.com/5570269/earth-day-origins/.
Westlake, S. (2019, April 30). Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/climate-change-yes-your-individual-action-does-make-a-difference-115169.
Rowlatt, J. (2019, September 20). Climate change action: We can’t all be Greta, but your choices have a ripple effect. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49756280.
Westlake, S. (2017). A Counter-Narrative to Carbon Supremacy: Do Leaders Who Give Up Flying Because of Climate Change Influence the Attitudes and Behaviour of Others? SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3283157
Mark, J. (2019, December 4). Yes, Actually, Individual Responsibility Is Essential to Solving the Climate Crisis. Sierra Club. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/yes-actually-individual-responsibility-essential-solving-climate-crisis.