An Audacious Toolkit: Actions Against Climate Breakdown (Part 3: I is for Individual)

Individual or collective action?

Snap! Tricked you! It’s a false dichotomy. The answer, as in most big challenges, is not either/or, but both/and. Collective action is by far the most important level (see parts 1 & 2 of this trilogy), but because we live in a world dominated by neoliberal ideas, where social connection is nothing and economic growth is raised to the level of a religious dogma, the media often focuses only on individual actions: what can you, alone, isolated, do? In incomparable style, Kate Aronoff gave CNN tit-for-tat on their individually-focused climate story:

“Being the change” as part of a bigger revolution

We need individual actions which are connected to larger efforts for systemic change. Indeed, to state a tritely obvious fact, there is no such thing as “collective” change on its own. Ultimately, all big social shifts consist in a web of multiplied, communicated and interconnected individual actions, each rippling out and amplifying the others. It is essential that we understand how these ripples and amplifications occur, so that we become potent forces of change for the flourishing and survival of our communities. (For this potency to be realized, though, it is also necessary to understand the forces lined up against us. But let’s focus on offense, rather than defense, just for now.)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett detail, Parliament Square, London. Photograph by Robin Sones.

1. Individual action is crucial for credible communication

“Humans are social animals, and we use social cues to recognize emergencies. People don’t spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water.” If we want our co-workers, family members, neighbors, businesses and politicians to understand there is a climate and living world emergency going on, we had better signal through our actions that we truly believe this emergency is real. Carrying an “End of the world is nigh!” sign while flying to conferences or on holidays to eat meat from animals fed on soybeans from Amazonian deforestation won’t fool anyone: it makes it obvious that you’re just pretending to care, but don’t actually truly believe for a single nanosecond that there is a real problem.

2. Individual action leads to a new normal

“conservation behavior spreads across people. It’s not enough to tell people they should conserve; people have to see what others do.” People learn to change when they see others doing it: effectively, individual change is leading by example. It demonstrates to your co-workers, neighbors, family, etc that (a) this change is practically feasible; (b) people in their immediate circle are doing it (i.e. it’s not that weird); ( c) this is a direction the world might go in, so they should learn about it. I think the last point has been under-emphasized: people like to have awareness of new trends and horizons, especially for their health and well-being. So demonstrating a new “right” way of doing things is a topic of automatic curiosity and interest: Is this what we should all be doing? Can we learn how it is done? Can we try it out? And it only takes one person to start a trend. You may not see yourself as a fashion leader or trend-setter (like the kidz say, LOL, amirite?), but you are inevitably part of a web of people who look to each other for cues, information and solutions. You can (and let’s face it, must) be the spark that illuminates a different way of doing things, a different way of being part the world, all across that web.

3. Individual action leads to collective action

“Just as sacrifice convinces others that climate action is important, it convinces us of our own commitment; we start to see ourselves as climate advocates. Eating less meat creates a gateway to workplace advocacy — like encouraging digital meetings or lobbying for solar panels — which opens a door to signing petitions or protesting.”
This one is really big: once you are personally engaged in something, walking the walk, putting your body and actions in motion to advance this cause, you become braver and more willing to reach out to others to ask them to change too. In our individually-focused society, asking someone else to change is considered rude, a terrible taboo. And we feel it as such: we feel almost apologetic reminding others we eat plant-based food, or don’t fly or drive — never mind asking them to change as well! But climate breakdown and species extinction requires us to be bolder and braver, and here individual actions are the baby steps: once you have ordered your first veggie burger or committed to cycling to work, you are learning to stand in a new place. From that new place, you learn to expect more from others as well, and you can beckon them to join you. You learn to expect more from your politicians, in terms of action and infrastructure: less money for motorists, more for the rest of us. You learn to expect more from your workplace and pension fund. You expand the horizon of your possibilities and ambition, and this goes from strength to strength.

4. Individual action enables learning by doing

Change is hard, sometimes. And despite the glib “you can just switch to X!” narrative, enacting the daily differences we believe are necessary to shift the world to a less disastrous course involves obstacles and setbacks. Making big, permanent changes on our own is in some sense too much to ask: we are asked to live and work within structures that are mainly designed for fossil fuel use. But we can try. And something very interesting happens when we try, even when we don’t succeed entirely the first time: we talk to people, we communicate, we trouble-shoot, we learn. So by asking questions, discussing difficulties, laughing over failed attempts at making veggie burgers, one individual will be learning from, and teaching others, what a carbon-free life can look like, and how it can be adapted to diverse situations: spread out.

Which individual changes?

The usual propensity of people to disagree on details even when they agree on the bigger picture is particularly manifest in this sphere. But sadly, dear quarrelsome friends, you don’t get to choose. Remember? We’re in a both/and kind of world now. So this list is not prioritized: the only priority you get to make is which you choose to tackle first. If some of these need a longer plan to be realized, then that plan needs to be put in place so that you can get to a place where all of these are possible.

1. Not flying or flying less

That’s a big one. If you fly, air travel is certainly a large fraction of your personal emissions, probably anywhere upwards of a third. Not flying is one of the simplest, as in “single action”, as well as most impactful actions you can take. It also requires you to communicate with others (why are you not going to an exotic location on holiday? why are you not attending a conference which is relevant to your work?), which is good, because only actions which are communicated ripple out. Not flying is also an action, unlike some others below, which requires obvious sacrifice. This is also good: according to Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparckman, actions which involve personal sacrifice remind us of our commitment, and make us more likely to engage in further advocacy.

2. Stop driving (or smaller or less or electric)

Cars are terrible. Seriously, I have NOTHING good to say about the invention of the internal combustion engine. Cars pollute, they kill people directly and indirectly, they are noisy, they take up space in cities, and they turn people into their worst selves. At the same time, they are also considered necessities of modern life: many people can’t envision their daily travel to work without a car, especially when that travel involves school runs, grocery shopping on top of other errands. I use cars for trips involving my elderly parents, or for weekend trips outside the city.

Father with children in cargo bike in Copenhagen. Source Wikepedia.

3. Eat a plant-based diet

This one doesn’t even involve sacrifice (as far as I’m concerned) and it can be done virtually overnight. Meat, fish and dairy products are some of the worse drivers of environmental devastation, through emissions of methane, emissions & pollution from animal waste, fertilizer use (for feed), and especially deforestation. They are also incredibly inefficient, since the bulk of meat and dairy production rely on grain-based feed: crops that are edible by humans, but where 1 calorie of red meat takes up to 10 calories of feed, and hence the same multiplier for land use, fertilizers & water. Food is one of the largest categories of emissions related to personal consumption: somewhere around 20–30%, and much more for land (and hence biodiversity) related impacts.

4. Low consumption home life

How do you allow your home life to require less energy and stuff? Here would be my list of priorities:

  1. Try frugality;
  2. Insulated and efficient;
  3. Generating renewable energy.

5. Add your own?

There are certainly other areas I have omitted, however none at a scale which is a significant chunk of individually-linked emissions, I believe. However, if the one you care most about it missing, please leave it in the comments? Remember, though: it should be significant, and it should ripple out.

Two references

I’m linking to just two studies below (please add your own in comments, as usual this is not my area of expertise). However, please learn take any study with a grain of salt, and don’t become too wedded to one or the other? None of them are “perfect”, or perfectly comparable, because no research is ever the final word. Here are some ways in which studies differ:

  • which geographic area or time span does the study cover: if you are not from Finland, estimating emissions from the Finnish energy mix or vehicle fleet won’t be as relevant as using estimates from your own country, for instance;
  • what emissions are included (carbon dioxide only, other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which others? …), does the study include land use change and deforestation as well as emissions? (This point is particularly important for studies on food and diets, where a large fraction of the global warming effect comes from non-carbon emissions and land-use change.).
Figure 3 from Ivanova et al 2015, showing resource footprints for EU household consumption.
Individual options to reduce climate impact from Wynes & Nicholas 2017.

The Audacious Toolkit Climate Action Trilogy!

This post is Part 3 of a trilogy! Part 1, covering the crucial importance of collective action, and A is for Advocacy, B is for Barricade and C is for Civil Disobedience is linked here.

Immigrant, Swiss-American ecological economist at the University of Leeds. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.

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