Individual vs systemic climate action

Kai Brach
Kai Brach
Mar 9 · 6 min read

“If we convince more people to take the bus instead of driving to work and do ‘Meat-free Mondays’, we can all do our part in saving the planet from climate collapse. My action as a consumer does matter because it shifts demand on the free market towards more sustainable options!”
— a simplified, paraphrased response I received from a few readers to my intro in
DD Issue 77.

I think it’s great that you’re doing what you can to minimise your carbon footprint. I’m doing that too!

Note that I’m not saying we should all stop doing ‘green things’. What recent conversations made me realise, though, is that we need to reconsider how we frame the conversation about individual action, and I think that’s where we disagree.

Those who are concerned about the climate crisis need to do a better job at highlighting that more than 70% of the climate problem is caused by just 100 corporations and the corrupt politicians that prop them up and continue to profit unfathomably from this destructive system. The collective action I mentioned (divestment, workplace action, more political action, etc.) is about trying to engage with this issue at a higher level — acknowledging that we’ll only make it to ~1.5–2C warming if the head of the beast cooperates.

As I mentioned, some research is showing that many discussions about climate-friendly toothpaste or milk is taking away our attention/focus. And anecdotal evidence confirms this for me. I can’t tell you how often I hear the average person say “I’m already doing a lot!” and then talk about recycling or not eating meat once a week. And as they say this, I can see how in the their head they tick off the box that says ‘climate action’.

Polls show that the majority of Australians (and I think it’s the same in many other countries) want strong climate action. Yet people are still voting for the same old parties and politicians that keep the current system going. Why? I believe they vote this way because they don’t see the top-level connections between the heavy polluters and the neo-liberal political system that keeps them in place. (I don’t think I need to remind you how pervasive and effective lobbyism has become around the world.) And those politicians are doing an excellent job distracting us, or worse, polarising us by saying stuff like “The Greens want to take your car/burger/holiday/freedom away!”

When we argue that consumer pressure can ‘fix’ the climate crisis we don’t acknowledge how much change in consumer behaviour is necessary to move the needle by just a few percent. You’d have to convince hundreds of millions of people to essentially give up their way of life to have a just a fraction of the impact that the above mentioned 100 companies have on emissions. And that has to happen in a decade or so. Profound changes in consumer behaviour are difficult to achieve and take a long time in just one country/culture, let alone globally.

Rather than trying to convince a car-loving conservative person that they need to drive less, we need to educate them that it’s not their car, nor your kid, nor my holiday that’s causing the bulk of the problem. The problem is ‘up there’ and that’s where we need to direct our focus and anger. But when we continue to frame the conversation in a way that says ‘You need to stop doing X — how irresponsible of you!’ in order to save the planet, we’re just going to get more polarised. (That’s not to say that our lifestyle doesn’t need changing. It very obviously does, but we can’t tweak our way out of this crisis — not in time, anyway.)

We also need to be aware that when advocating for lifestyle changes we often do so from a position of privilege. A lot of folks buying cheap meat or driving long distances to get to work may not have the luxury to think about their own carbon footprint because they’re focused on making ends meet. It might be a choice for you and me to take the bus to work, but telling people who have no other transport option to ‘ditch the car’ might make them angry or fearful, playing right into the hands of politicians who are quick to benefit from that anger.

On top of that, in the time we have this conversation, a few hundred people in China probably bought a brand new car because they just entered the middle class, with hundreds of millions still to come (not to mention India). In a world where billions of people are striving for the lifestyle that we in the West are now realising is unsustainable, small personal sacrifices of those in privileged positions will probably not make a big enough impact.

Some argue that new technology is a big part of the solution. In Australia politicians recently started talking about ‘adaptation and resilience’. “We need to invest heavily in new technologies to cope with the effects of climate change!”, they say. They love talking about adapting to change. Make us more resilient. Invest in the future! They love talking about everything but the giant bloody elephant in the room: we need to stop digging up and burning new fossil fuels! There is no future models where technology can save us if we don’t stop the emissions of fossil fuels first.

It’s also true that much of the gains in efficiency we have achieved through new tech are often offset by population/economic growth. E.g. combustion engines have become more efficient but cars have also grown much larger and heavier, offsetting most gains. Meanwhile, the gig economy makes a lot of people switch to private car services instead of more climate-friendly public transport. Airlines talk a lot about investing in fuel efficient planes and offset programs to make us feel less guilty about flying, but at the same time more people than ever before are getting on planes and there is a ‘queue’ of hundreds of millions of people in ‘emerging economies’ hoping to be able to take their first overseas holidays soon.

I don’t think there is a clear line where individual action starts and ends, but think about where your action can scale the quickest.

Divestment is a good example: by not investing in fossil fuel companies you are taking away the funding of new oil/coal/gas projects — not just in your own country, but globally. That’s shifting a whole lot of other industries: finance, insurance, engineering, etc. Depending on your personal economic situation, you/your family might have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings/pension accounts or ETFs. Convincing more people to make that money unavailable to these big polluters has a much bigger effect than telling them to take the bus to work.

Workplace action: instead of you taking one less flight, imagine being able to convince a large corporation to make all of their trips ‘economy class only’ instead of business class and introduce video calls as an acceptable format for meetings. (It’s amazing how the corona virus situation has highlighted how doable these changes are!) If you work in a large business with hundreds or thousands of flights per year, fighting for this change is a better investment of your time than spending two hours finding the most fuel efficient airline for your holiday.

We’re obviously both on the same side; we worry deeply about climate change. And yes, climate change is not binary — it’s not a switch but a slider, meaning every ton of carbon kept in the ground is a win. But given the little time we have left, we need to focus on the levers that have the biggest impact. We need to make everyone realise that there are just a few hundred people in the world deciding over the future of our planet—over the lives of billions! By causing the vast majority of Greenhouse gasses, that small group of individuals determines whether we’ll face a future with ‘unpredictable weather patterns’ (~1.5C warming) or one that is barely liveable (3C+ warming) with a society torn apart by food shortages, climate refugees, and geo-political conflict.

Needless to say, I’m not a climate scientist or expert. My views are evolving. I’m just another person concerned about our shared future, stuck in and part of a system that feels utterly unjust. I’m still doing a lot to lower my own footprint for the reasons I mentioned in my newsletter, but whenever the climate conversation comes up, I now feel like I should remind others that the most urgent problem to focus on and to discuss with their family and friends is not their inefficient refrigerator or the carbon footprint of their milk.

Kai Brach

Written by

Kai Brach

Publisher of print magazine and weekly newsletter

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