Climate change and individual action

The concept of individual action to solve systemic problems has long plagued the environmental movement. For most of my life, a majority of the environmental messaging I encountered centered on the capitalist notion of “voting with your dollar”, and supporting corporations who did “good things”. It would be nice to believe that everyone has seen through that lie, but despite the decades of inaction on climate change, exposed “greenwashing” campaigns by destructive corporations, and continued environmental degradation, it has shown a great deal of persistence.

As with many other lies relating to climate change, I suspect the biggest reason for that is the way in which belief in that lie benefits those same corporations. The millions invested in corruption and propaganda to prevent systemic responses to climate change have protected billions in profit. The only downside is the billions who will have their lives upended or destroyed, and by now it’s abundantly clear that the “captains of industry” and their pet politicians consider life to be of little intrinsic value.

And so the narrative continues, and efforts to persuade people to support systemic changes are misinterpreted – deliberately and not – as personal attacks, and demands for individual changes, without any supportive infrastructure to make those changes feasible.

Andreas Avester has a good post on this problem:

If I started telling other people to live the way I do, that would be plain nasty. I have chosen to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions in areas where it requires relatively little or even zero sacrifice from me. For example, for me not buying coffee and drinks in PET bottles requires zero inconvenience or sacrifice, because I don’t even like these drinks. Alternatively, avoiding plastic bags and plastic food packaging is a bit of hassle, because I have to remember to take my own empty containers with me whenever I go grocery shopping, but it doesn’t feel like a huge inconvenience for me; I also have to avoid supermarkets and instead walk a bit longer distance to a store with bulk bins, but it’s not that terrible. The catch is that for a another person with different food preferences who lives somewhere else doing the same actions (avoiding coffee, drinks in PET bottles, and food packaged in plastics) can be much harder than for me.

This is why I cringe whenever I hear somebody say that meat isn’t even tasty and legumes taste much better anyway, thus it ought to be easy for everybody to be vegan, and not eating animal foods doesn’t even require such a huge sacrifice. Indeed, if somebody doesn’t even like the taste of beef then not eating it really is a great idea. But it is wrong to assume that a plant-based diet is just as easy for everybody else. Never mind that some people are allergic to vegan staples or must limit their carbohydrate intake due to diabetes.

Whenever a vegan with a car, two kids, and a coffee drinking habit tries to lecture me about how I am destroying the planet (I do eat animal foods), I perceive that as hypocritical even though I can agree that eating more legumes and less meat is beneficial.

Taking a systemic, policy-based approach to climate change has two major benefits. The first is that it provides a means to deal with the corporations whose activities and spending are responsible for a majority of the problem, and for the funded opposition to the changes we need. The second is to make the individual choices Andreas writes about easier for more people. Mass transit, readily available appliances like LED bulbs, subsidies for more environmentally friendly farming practices and food sources, and a thousand other changes are designed to achieve the changes we need to make to our personal lives with as little discomfort or added effort as possible. The persistent narrative that climate activists want everybody to take on the incredibly difficult task of eliminating their individual carbon footprint without societal support has been an effective barrier to useful discourse on this issue. I can’t count the number of conversations about climate solutions I’ve had, in which I first had to spend time convincing one or more people that I was not attacking them for not already living in the way I wanted all of us to live after systemic changes had been made.

Andreas’ article includes some useful data and graphics, and I recommend you all check it out. We didn’t get to this point through individual action, and individual action won’t solve societal problems.

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