Personal actions are often the entry point into environmental issues. People become aware of an issue, ask what they can do about it, and find small steps that they can take.
Because they’re often fads, these actions can appear much more important than they really are, and can even distract us from things that would really make a difference. I remember being told from the stage at Live Earth that we should all switch off our phone chargers when they’re not in use. That’s great, but the energy saved over the course of a whole year of doing that is equivalent to one second of driving – and no one told people to drive less.
That time around 2007 was probably the peak moment for ‘green tips’ and ‘small things you can do’. Today environmentalists and climate change writers are smarter, but perhaps at the risk of swinging too far the other way. Twice in the last week I’ve heard really good climate writers dismiss the whole idea of personal action.
First was David Wallace-Wells in his book The Uninhabitable Earth (review next week). The author writes openly about how worried he is about climate change, but says that he has made no lifestyle changes in response because political actions are far more important. Then I saw David Roberts, a climate writer for Vox, post a series of tweets attacking the idea of personal actions. “Why on earth, if I’m convinced by the science of climate change, would I set about making a bunch of symbolic personal sacrifices that wouldn’t change anything?”
This is all a bit pointless and counter-productive. Clearly politics matters. Obviously symbolic gestures don’t get us very far. But personal actions have a huge role to play in change. There are many more, but here are six reasons why:
1. There’s no such thing as an individual action. Or at least, there aren’t many. If I walk the 30 seconds to the cornershop to buy a pint of milk, hundreds of people are influenced by that choice, in tiny ways and most of them unseen – dairy farmers, the delivery driver, the manufacturers of plastic bottles and those that recycle them, even the person who makes the machines that press the £1.20 in coins at the Royal Mint. The moment I step out my front door, others are involved. This is why I write about personal actions rather than individual actions. Everything we do ripples outwards into the world.
2. It all adds up. It’s an odd thing to say that because our own actions are small, they make no difference. We wouldn’t apply that logic to other things – “I’m trying to write a book here, what’s the point of individual words?” Democracy works on the cumulative votes of individuals. Markets work on the cumulative spending of individuals. Decarbonising can work in the same way. We might roll our eyes at hipsters going vegan for the climate, but enough people are doing it that the meat industry is worried about it. Enough people are buying electric cars that the oil companies are buying car charging companies.
3. It’s not an either/or: both of the writers I mention above argue that political action is more important. Wallace-Wells chastises those who make lifestyle choices but “rarely make meaningful political noise about those issues that run against our own self-interest”. He’s right to disapprove of that, but there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, you need to do both – see point four.
4. Personal action gives politicians reasons to act. Politicians won’t move any quicker than the people that vote for them, and we can use our personal choices to change the political landscape. “Right now, I fly and eat meat” says Roberts on Twitter. “I also advocate for policies that would make flying and meat eating meat much more expensive.” But the more people stop flying and eating meat voluntarily, the more politically feasible those measures become. Use your personal choices to lower the bar for politicians, and more systemic change will be easier.
5. Model the change. How often do you see solar panels on clusters of three or four houses on a street? One person intalls them, then the neighbours either side get them, and then the family opposite. My brother bought a hybrid car, and now I have one and my parents have one. The actions we take model change to others and help to normalise that behaviour. Yes, some people are annoying and self-righteous about the choices they make, but you don’t have to be that person.
6. The moral imperative. Finally, there is such a thing as right and wrong, or at least there is in my world. There are plenty of things that are perfectly legal, but that have no place in a just world. We’re all going to have to draw our own conclusions on where those lines are, and resist the urge to judge others who draw them differently. Sometimes we will have to compromise. But we can also say with confidence that in an age of climate change and potentially massive disruption, taking steps to reduce our personal carbon footprints is simply the right thing to do.