Every now and then, articles like this get passed around on Facebook telling us that if we stop [eating meat / flying in airplanes / driving cars / having children / having fun] we can have an impact on climate change.
This is complete nonsense.
First, despite these articles calling them “individual” actions, these are very much not “individual” actions, they are collective actions. They only work if everybody, or a critical mass, does them. If I stop flying on airplanes, but most of the people who currently fly on airplanes continue to, my action will have entirely zero impact on climate change. These actions would only – maybe – be viable solutions to climate change if there were any chance that a critical mass of people would realistically take these actions. There is not. They will not.
People are not going to stop using cars and planes en masse. Vehicle ownership is expected to double in the next two decades. Air travel also is expected to double over the next two decades. Too many jobs, too many peoples’ economic survival, depend on transport by these means. Nor will people stop eating meat and having babies en masse. Meat consumption is growing rapidly (20% in the last ten years). Population is still increasing rapidly. These are biologically and culturally ingrained behaviors. Centuries-old cuisines and traditions are centered on meat consumption. It’s great if Upper East Side Manhattanites can manage a vegan, car-free lifestyle. But most Americans cannot and will not. A vast majority of humans are never going to factor in future carbon emissions when deciding whether or not to have a child. Demanding this requires a degree of privilege that most do not possess.
Second, even if these actions were taken by a lot more people than will ever realistically take them, they will still not ultimately prevent catastrophic climate change. As long as we continue producing most of our electricity with coal and gas, emissions will continue to drive catastrophic climate disruption. Individuals cutting off a few tons of carbon here and there will not halt this massive, industrial-scale problem.
Decades of campaigns to compel people to take personal actions like recycle, compost, buy organic, buy certified whatever, etc. have had zero discernible impact on global environmental problems. We still have accelerating climate disruption, we still have massive biodiversity loss, accelerating habitat loss, persistent arable land degradation, fishery collapse, ocean acidification, and on and on. These “individual” lifestyle actions have had no impact on these issues. Continuing to waste money, attention, and energy on these campaigns detracts from actions that really can impact these issues.
The only thing that will slow climate change is a massive, rapid transition in how energy is produced, i.e., we have to stop using coal, gas, and oil on a global, structural scale. And there are both collective and individual actions far more important than those above for achieving this end.
Effective, realistic collective actions we can take to address climate change involve the following: Vote for candidates who prioritize energy transition toward renewables. Compel representatives, regulators, and utility commissioners to fight for energy transition. Support bills that incentivize non-carbon energy and disincentivize carbon energy. Market-based collective actions we can take involve pressuring our electricity providers to switch to non-carbon sources. More affluent individuals can purchase solar panels and home electricity storage. Opt to pay more for electricity that is derived from alternatives. Those less affluent but with sufficient leisure time can organize a community renewable energy program that collectively purchases and runs a solar array for their neighborhood. These are collective actions. Alone they mean little, but with many of us, they are powerful. Compelling many citizens to take these actions is not easy, but they’re a lot easier than getting masses of people to stop having babies or driving cars. And they would be a lot more effective in reducing emissions.
Individual actions that people can take that may have an impact on the issue include (but are not limited to) the following: Run for office. As a political leader, you can prioritize energy transition yourself and work to get alternative energy production in your community. You can directly help end subsidies to carbon energy. Write a book investigating the fossil fuel industry or new ways of organizing communities to achieve collective political action, or any myriad topics related to this issue. Start an innovative company, an energy technology venture or an electric car company for instance, go compete with Elon Musk—he needs the competition in his life. Invent a cheap, effective way of extracting carbon from the atmosphere, invent an alternative form of energy, or invent a new technique for fusion. Become a researcher and contribute knowledge toward the invention of those above technologies or a new understanding of how to address climate change.
These are not easy actions one can take on the side. This problem isn’t easy. If you don’t want to reshape your life to fix this problem, then your individual actions – not having children, not flying, not driving, not eating meat – probably won’t have any impact. But your collective actions certainly could.
This piece generated some good discussion and pushback from environmentalists so I invited a colleague working in the conservation field to respond. He requested anonymity, but here is what he had to say:
The author is right, pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) show little indication that they will lead to sufficient reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or address the climate crisis. Industry and wealthy consumers inflict, by far, the most negative impacts to our natural environment and atmosphere. We must establish robust initiatives and campaigns to intervene in the runaway harm they inflict.
However, the solution is not to give up on pro-environmental behaviors in hopes that this energy will be transferred to political action for climate change. There are many smaller, yet serious, environmental issues, such as waste management, land-use practices, and human/nature relationships, that PEBs do successfully mitigate. Rather than select one for the other, instead, I would suggest we encourage and strengthen PEBs, so that those who are willing to make the sacrifice of lifestyle change may inspire others to become nature and climate advocates, and take the political action that is needed to deal with these problems.
All contributions should be positively encouraged and rewarded rather than condemned. The issue of stopping at recycling or changing a lightbulb is not caused by PEBs. This is a matter of social norms and place identity, which must be addressed through education, awareness, and public campaigns that are designed to move people beyond weak action. And yes, that does include conducting research, writing books, writing politicians, running for office, innovating new products, and undertaking a myriad of political lobbying and activism efforts. But it also includes holding ourselves liable for the decisions we make as well.
The most common objection that I saw raised argued that this does not need to be an either/or proposition; why can’t we have both collective political action and collective personal action? I clearly did a poor job communicating this point in the piece, so here is another attempt:
The main reason I am arguing against collective personal actions and for collective political action is because there is a great scarcity in what we, as activists, can ask the public to do about climate change. Americans generally don’t care a lot about climate change, only about a 5th of Americans are “very worried” about it. Those who are willing to take action and do care a good deal about it have a limited capacity to take action. They, like all of us, compartmentalize issues – personal issues, political issues, global issues – and the actions they take to work on them. This box of concern is small. We, as activists, must be very careful about what we put in it, about what we suggest people should do to address a given issue.
This means we have to prioritize what we’re suggesting people do in addressing climate change. In many cases, we’ll only have one chance to convince someone to take action. That action must be something that is likeliest to have an impact. Given the structural, systemic nature of the problem, a political action that contributes to changing the energy system is far more impactful than a personal action that does not contribute to changing the energy system (like riding a bike or having no children).
So if people want to have fewer children and eat less meat, good. But when we devote resources to writing articles, producing studies, and running campaigns to convince people to do this, we risk doing harm to the cause of mobilizing action on climate change. We risk filling that small box of actions people will take with acts that will likely have absolutely no impact on climate change.
When national news outlets are saying that having fewer kids is the best way to personally address climate change, but so rarely mention the political work that needs to be done to address climate change, that’s a real problem.