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Why Personal Action Matters When Tackling Climate Change

May 6, 2024
6
 min read
A venn diagram with "perfection or nothing" on one side, "it's pointless" on the other and "Each small imperfect practical action matters" in between them.
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“When your mind tells you that you are just one person, too small to make a difference, so why bother, you can remind yourself that tipping points are non-linear” — Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose

It’s a rite of passage on our journey to trying to be a little bit less sh*t during the climate emergency to wonder whether your personal actions actually matter. Your opinion probably falls somewhere between the two following extremes:

1. Personal purity & perfection

The only noble goal is zero waste, zero harm, zero emissions (translating to zero happiness all in the pursuit of zero blame)!

Or:

2. Personal powerlessness & pointlessness

We assume nothing we do matters given our tiny place within a tiny cog of the gigantic wheel that is modern globalised society.

But both perspectives are wrong.

No Point in Perfection

First things first. There is no such thing as zero waste. Or zero harm. From the tomato on your plate to the chair you’re sitting on, chances are that somewhere and at some time, someone had to suffer. Alexis Shotwell’s to-the-point assertion that “living our lives relies on the suffering and death of others” is a tough pill to swallow for those of us who want to do the right thing.

So perfection is impossible when we exist within, and are dependent on, a broken system.

It’s also a privilege to even consider pursuing a sustainable lifestyle in the first place, as sisterwoman vegan makes clear:

“Being able to follow a vegan lifestyle is inherently a privilege, because veganism assumes that you have choice and agency about what you eat, how it is prepared and where it comes from”.

A further flaw with the pursuit of ‘perfection’ in individual behaviour-change advocacy is that as a message it doesn’t particularly work.

Let’s again take the topic of veganism as an example for individual behaviour change. Traditional non-human animal advocacy argues for elimination of all animal products, assuming that educating people about their dietary consequences will lead to a moral epiphany and overnight dietary change. But Matt Ball notes that “if we actually want to reduce cruelty, we should do everything possible to both embrace and encourage everyone.”

Prioritising perfection at all costs draws our collective attention away from what actually matters — impact. We see this when people trying their best are attacked for moral inconsistency despite their efforts:

A tweet saying "Now I’m not making fun of people’s environmental advocacy- in fact, I welcome it, because we need it. I also believe thinking critically is important, and that we shouldn’t trust everyone on the internet just becusss they have a title.  But this kind of behavior is exhausting." Followed by another tweet by Imogene Cancellare saying "If you pick apart every little thing someone does, you’re making them the enemy, even if you’re right, it’s no longer advocacy. When it comes to climate change and the environment, we don’t need everyone to do everything perfectly, we need everyone to do some things well."

So if perfection isn’t possible, how can the small stuff really matter? After all, it’s hard to argue against the adage “system change, not individual change!” given that fossil fuel corporations and their investors are responsible for ~70% of anthropogenic GHG emissions. Oh, and the US military has a larger carbon footprint than entire industrialised nations like Denmark.

But systems change does not exist in a binary with individual action.

Let’s dig into the flipside of personal perfection — a belief that our actions are ultimately pointless in tackling systemic issues like climate change.

The impact of an individual action

It’s true that the direct consequences of a one-time individual behaviour don’t add up to all that much.

Ben Almassi discusses the consequences of individual consumption choices with an everyday moral dilemma of Connie at a taqueria, who is choosing between a bean or a chicken taco. Connie holds the moral view that chicken suffering and slaughterhouse labour practices are wrong. And yet, choosing chicken over beans has no immediate direct impact because the chicken she’s about to eat is already dead. Choosing the bean taco doesn’t affect a real chicken’s wellbeing in any way. In fact, even if she NEVER ate chicken again she would realistically only have a one-in-a-thousand chance of sparing 22,000 animals according to Nick Cooney’s Veganomics.

So if Connie cares about making an actual impact with her decision, should she stop attempting to consume according to her moral values?

As Giana Eckhardt, the head of the Center for Research into Sustainability at Royal Holloway, University of London notes, “I think people get, on some level, that they can’t solve these complex, systemic issues just by how they shop.”

Almaasi ultimately concludes that Connie, and by extension each of us, “has an opportunity to support or oppose unjust systematic practices” with each action we take.

So each choice has moral significance, regardless of the actual real-life impact it has.

Indirect influence

Not only that, but each small action we take can create ripples of impact through its indirect influence on other people’s choices.

In a survey conducted by Steve Westlake, a PhD Researcher in Environmental Leadership at Cardiff University, half of the respondents who knew someone who had given up flying because of climate change said that it compelled them to also fly less.

“When we fly less, we indicate our concern and the possibility of change. When we eat green, we inspire a few others to try. These gestures of what we value can shift the normative needles a society lives by. And that, though small, is a start.”–Chandni Singh

Such ripple effects of social and political influence are your climate shadow, a term coined by Emma Pattee. Our ripples of influence on others can also be clearly seen through the public’s response to various COVID-19 lockdowns, where shifting social norms helped to create a sense of ‘collective efficacy’ which enabled the fulfilment of governmental policies.

This notion of ‘indirect’ impact is a big reason that Sami Grover, author of the awesome book We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now, advocates for thinking beyond your individual carbon footprint. Instead, he suggests seeking “collective actions that ripple outward across society”, such as supporting climate movement organisations like the Sunrise Movement with your money/time, or both.

Other actions could be to hold your local council to account (if you’re in the UK) with the Council Climate Plan Scorecards. Or, it could look like joining an hour of high-impact political climate action with the Climate Changemakers if you’re US-based (or you can sign up to their Europe Chapter).

Collective consequences

Going back to the example of sustainable diets, it’s worth noting that the collective decarbonisation achieved by meat-reducers far outweighs the impact of the fully vegan population. A 2014 paper concluded that this “reduction in individual meat consumption to the recommended healthy dietary guidelines, offers a global opportunity to immediately begin decreasing anthropogenic emissions, [and] mitigate climate change”.

Advocates of sustainable diets should therefore try to make such reductions “easier, so that less motivation is required”, a strategy Tobias Leenaer notes in his book How to Create a Vegan World. This suggestion that tweaking contextual factors (menu choice architecture, framing of dish names etc) is more impactful than morally persuasive appeals can be unpalatable to people with a particular value system.

But what matters most is the real-life difference an action has, not the advocate’s moral principles.

Collective duty, collective hope

Let’s dig deeper into the feeling of ‘powerlessness’ that we mentioned earlier. Chandni Singh believes that this feeling of personal insignificance amidst the scale of global crises “can be balanced by finding individual purpose and hope, both key to emotional coping for climate change”.

Each action we take also assumes greater significance through its tangible contribution to a sense of collective duty.

This resolve to take responsibility for our role in tackling systemic issues is good for us psychologically:

When we take responsibility for the environmental consequences of our daily actions, we feel like we are in control. And when you’re in control of your own life, perhaps then you’ll feel more empowered to take control of — or at least play a role in — larger political systems.–Jason Mark

Growing circles why our individual actions matter. From inwards to outwards: shapes a sense of hope, tool of protest, its indirect influence on shifting social norms, its impct in aggregate with others.

We need to reframe our small actions beyond their direct ‘real-life’ impact but instead through their ability to contribute to collective impact and their symbolic signifcance as a necessary tool of protest. Each time we choose to cycle, to not to buy something, or purchase second-hand, or use a reusable cup or wipe or nappy instead of disposable, we’re recognising the power each choice holds.

Q: What’s your perspective on whether personal action matters?

Originally published on Medium.com

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