Why individual action matters for the environment

There are two kinds of people. Those who believe in personal responsibility — in little actions from everyone adding up to something great — and those who do not.

Until senior year of college, it never occurred to me that one could simultaneously be an environmentalist and not believe in personal responsibility. Until that point, my knowledge of being sustainable was rooted in personal action. You, as an individual, choose to reduce waste, to borrow or reuse, to not buy, or if you must buy, buy the greener alternatives.

Then I met environmentalists who claimed otherwise. It didn’t matter what you did as an individual; you would only ever be a drop in the bucket. The solution lay in grand technological cures. Keep in mind, senior year of college for me was before the tech boom emerged from the ashes of the housing crisis. We weren’t yet talking about colonizing Mars.


I fully understand the 80–20 principle, that the majority of impact comes from a minority of sources. I spent 3 years at a company that worked in accordance with this principle. Yet when it came to people’s individual actions, whether in terms of living sustainably or speaking out against some kind of wrong, I feel quite differently. This is why:

1. A technological solution is reactive

Let’s assume we create a machine that magically restores the atmosphere. What a boon! We’ve fixed the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, and we can continue our lives as usual. We can eat all the beef we want, we can shop ’til we drop, we can fly around the world just to wrack up miles and points.

Until someone points out that those behaviors are irreparably degrading the topsoil we depend on for food production (because in a closed environmental system, everything is connected).

But it’s no problem, because someone in the future who has access to even more advanced technology will have created a novel solution that creates new soil. What a boon! We will be able to continue our lives as usual. We will be able to eat all the beef we want, we will be able to shop ’til we drop, we will be able to fly around the world just to wrack up miles and points.

Until someone points out that those behaviors are irreparably damaging something else, and so forth. (If you want a good list of environmental problems, read Lester Brown.)

If we don’t ever take personal responsibility for anything, we’re always in a reactive cycle of building solutions, which essentially become bandaids. Yes, technology grows exponentially, but in a closed system, problems can grow exponentially as well (that’s why everyone is so afraid of the permafrost melting). And maybe one day, the technological solution won’t come fast enough.

(I guess new advances in artificial intelligence could enable technological solutions to be proactive, but I don’t feel informed enough on the field. Feel free to comment and enlighten me.)

The trade-off to think through is whether or not investing in something as challenging as behavior change on a humanity-level scale is easier or a better investment than investing in technological solutions. The thing is, this is the kind of question that I believe only hindsight can answer. Which leads me to another point…

2. The positivity of taking personal responsibility is not debatable

You can analyze to death the merits of one solution vs. another. I would rather not be wrapped up in discussions like the one I posed in the paragraph prior. Even though I believe in the value of data, and in making sure we’re making the correct decision, we also need to recognize when to stop to avoid analysis paralysis.

If we just focus on built solutions, in our competitive economy, there is an incentive to debate why one’s solution is the best, and not collaborate. But there are so few businesses genuinely focused on “doing good,” and so many others that, while it’s not their direct intention, create the outcome of “doing bad” that in many ways debate and competition may overall do a disservice.

However, it’s pretty inarguable that we all should take greater personal responsibility for our actions. After all, we have kids, we have jobs; at a smaller scale we have diets, we have workouts. All of those examples are us taking responsibility for something. Why can’t we extend that to the environment?**

Here, I need to make a key distinction. I’m not prescribing a set of individual actions, because misguided actions may do more harm than good. I am saying, however, that as long as people are focused on being responsible, they will pursue (and course-correct as needed toward) the right actions, even as those actions change. Think about you taking personal responsibility over your diet. Your goal is to lose weight, so you start with some research and happen upon the Atkins diet. Over time as you’re tracking progress, you discover the Atkins diet isn’t working for you, so then you try something else. That’s the holistic example of personal responsibility, not just blindly following the Atkins diet even if it doesn’t work. The environmental example is that I would never prescribe a single action, like recycling, as the end-all-be-all to a sustainable lifestyle. The merits of recycling are debatable*** and it tops no true environmentalists’ list of actions to take. But I would say we should be more responsible about waste management, today that might be recycling for some things, but tomorrow it may change, just like a diet.

On a personal note, I’ve also been brought up to be responsible for my own actions. I totally realize that’s not always the case. Some people are raised (even if unintentionally) to believe that there will always be someone else to clean up after them. I guess in my view, that would be an example of a parent not being a very responsible one!

**There’s of course a difference between taking responsibility for something that impacts you immediately as opposed to the environment, which, at best, exerts influences that are highly indirect and comingled. As the reasoning goes — if parents won’t even stop smoking at home for the sake of their kids, why would they drive less for the sake of their kids’ generational future? Furthermore, there’s a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs playing in here; if you’re barely able to feed yourself, you’re not going to try to buy pesticide-free foods. This is a bigger discussion than this post. Personally, I believe there’s a great deal of learned behaviors and culture that can address the first challenge. For many people, religion or spirituality has influences on us that are only indirect, but that doesn’t mean they don’t act in-line with their spiritual values (and donate money to such causes). Regarding the second challenge, I think there’s a mix of policy and economic changes that need to occur. Green products are largely expensive not because they actually are expensive to produce but because of a system of perverse subsidies and ignored costs that make non-green-products cheap. This is why I myself believe in a mixed solution. I believe people need to take greater personal responsibility and that technological solutions need to make this easier. Last Minute Gear makes it incredibly easy to rent stuff, so that not only are the people who don’t want to buy for environmental reasons able to easily find an alternative, but that it actually sways people from buying to renting.

***There is a study that I happened across many years ago that I have never found because it was a very small local level type of thing, but I found it super interesting. The study basically said that recycling actually increased overall waste generation. Because of the mis-informed belief that recycling is a closed loop, people justified buying more plastic bottles by saying they’re going to be recycled into another plastic bottle. Fact: recycling is basically never closed loop… everything you recycle more or less at some point is going to go in a landfill

3. Small, individual actions snowball into bigger, technological solutions

This data is a little old, but in 2 separate occasions in 2009 and 2011 I worked on projects where a key component was to understand whether or not people would spend more on green products. The kicker is that they didn’t! (People said in theory they would spend more, but in practice rarely did. The data showed that at most, willingness-to-pay increased by 20% on average for a greener product, but only in a limited number of categories, e.g., buying organic food was more important than buying a toy made with responsibly grown wood. Again, caveat that this is old data.)

At the time, I had an argument with my manager. Despite what the data showed, I kept arguing that people did spend on green products. I couldn’t articulate why, then, but I can now. It’s not that I was blind to the data (I did the research!) but that I couldn’t puzzle it in my head — if people didn’t spend on green products, and surely businesses with their armies of analysts knew this, why the hell were they investing on green products (which are generally more costly, just think about manufacturing without slave labor)?

The reason is that because the group that did seek out green products were loud and vocal, awareness grew to an extent that it became a perceived status quo for companies to try to be green. So even in a world where consumers refused to bear the additional cost (because it was definitely greater than 20% in many cases), companies felt like they had no choice but to at least try to be green, even if only superficially. Today, go to any major company’s website and you’ll probably find information about their sustainability or CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs. Many companies even fold this information into their annual report. A friend pointed out that this is also the benefit of small action — we don’t know what works until we’ve tried! Could analytics have predicted that raising a fuss about green consumption would lead businesses to invest that way? Maybe, maybe not.

This is a similar line of thinking seen when people retort, “if everyone thought their vote didn’t matter, no one would vote” whenever someone asks, “why should I vote in a non-swing state.” To be honest, I have never been able to, and still can’t articulate how I feel about this, but I probably agree (with some caveats). Maybe at some point I’ll write a follow-up post once I can get my head around my personal thoughts.

Taking all this and reflecting back on the 80–20 principle, I guess one way to think about my commentary is that without the pressure of the masses who can only make a minority impact, we’d never go out and create the few solutions that make a majority impact. It’s the snowball effect. And it’s not just important in sustainability, it’s important in many other social justice movements. Yes, Rosa Parks and MLK, Jr occupy the greatest mindshare but would today look different if they were the only two people that did anything? Probably.

Even if you’re someone who asks, very bluntly:

What are the solutions to climate change? I’m not talking about things I can do myself, I don’t believe that will make a difference, what are the big technological solutions that we need to build?

Well, if you weren’t asking that question, and no one else was either, would we be trying to create technological solutions at all? In other words, your very question is a step in the right direction — an individual action you’ve taken that has joined a chorus of voices asking for change. If you truly wanted a grand, technological kind of solution, you might just wait expectantly. And then it’d be like the proverbial person stranded on an island, who turns away a rescue ship by saying, “It’s OK, I’m confident that God will save me.”


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