Why we can’t rely on individuals to fix climate change

~ This article was originally posted in January 2018 on The Climate Lemon blog, and was reposted to Medium with very minor edits in September 2021.

Photo by Snapwire // Pexels

The other day I saw a tweet that had escaped its platform of birth to become a Facebook meme. I can’t find it, but it said something like:

“Can we all please stop acting like ordinary people are to blame for climate change because we won’t take 5 minute showers and go vegan, and not the corporations that make billions from destroying the planet”.

I think this neatly gets to the crux of something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Individual climate action vs collective climate action. Lifestyle change vs system change.

‘We all need to take responsibility for climate change and take action in our own lives. In fact, it’s hypercritical to demand change unless we do so. Climate change is a big problem, but we can solve it by all doing our bit for the planet, by making small everyday choices.’

Do you agree? This a very prevalent view, maybe the most prevalent view on climate change. We’re all to blame and being green is a worthy lifestyle choice.

In the rest of this post I’m going to explain why I’m not keen on this framing. But first we’re going to discuss what’s right about it.

This view does have some merit, let’s be fair. Everyone does contribute to climate change and so we all hold some responsibility, and some power. Many people actually find that very empowering, and I can see why.

Our individual choices do matter.

It’s easy to see little things like buying organic vegetables, using a reusable coffee cup, biking to work, taking shorter showers, taking your own bags to the store and buying recycled paper as so trivial that they won’t make a difference.

But sustainable lifestyle choices do make a difference in the following ways:

  • They do save energy and resources, therefore emitting less carbon. Yes, the impact is small, but it is something and it adds up
  • They tell companies that customers are interested in being green, which will help influence their business decisions
  • They inspire other people around you to do the same, helping to normalize these actions and multiply the effect
  • They make you feel good by knowing you are doing something to combat the issue

Taking action to be more sustainable and low-carbon in your everyday life is absolutely worth doing. It does help, and we should all try to do more. Whatever you’re able to do, you should do it, and I applaud you. If everyone made some simple changes, the positive impact would be massive. The rest of this post does not change that.

My organic veg box

The thing is, individual climate action in our homes and shopping trollies is not going to cut it.

Firstly, we don’t have time to persuade every person to change their lifestyle. And secondly, even if somehow we miraculously did convince everyone, even that still wouldn’t be enough to solve climate change.

Climate change is a systemic global issue and we need collective action by multiple institutions to tackle it.

A significant chunk of our individual carbon footprints come from our share of government expenditure on things like roads, infrastructure, defence, education and healthcare that we all use and pay for with our taxes. For example in the UK, the average carbon footprint is 13.6 tonnes per year and that includes 3 tonnes from public services (according to this excellent carbon footprint quiz by WWF).

That’s not something you can reduce on your own.

And it doesn’t stop there. All the parts of our carbon footprint that we are in charge of, like our eating and shopping habits, where we live, how we heat our home, how we get about — are all directly impacted by things outside our control.

The business strategies of companies, the policies of local and national government, and of course the lottery of birth (where we happened to be born and what kind of family we were born into) all impact our choices.

You’re not going to get the bus to work if there is no bus route that connects your home to your office. If no shops in your neighbourhood sell organic food, you’re not going to buy it.

You have choices, but what’s possible and what’s convenient is dictated by companies, governments and other institutions.

Framing climate action as a lifestyle choice is a neoliberal way of looking at the issue, and it makes perfect sense within our hyper-individualist consumer culture.

Consumer rush. (Photo by Anna Dziubinska // Unsplash).

Actually, I think this deep individualism is why so many people struggle to see the value of small individual actions — because they are only looking at them in isolation, and not as part of a collective system.

Thoughtful and ethical consumption is key to climate action. It’s important, but too much focus on it encourages us to identify primarily as passive consumers, and minimizes the role of political activism and other forms of action.

I said earlier that many people find the potential of what ordinary people can do about climate change to be empowering. That’s great and I totally see why. But it’s a double-edged sword.

With power comes responsibility. When you say ordinary people have the power to fix climate change, it’s only one step away from saying ordinary people have the responsibility to fix climate change.

And that let’s governments and corporations off the hook.

We live in a world where eight men control the same wealth as the poorest half the global population combined. I first wrote this on what is known as ‘Fat Cat Thursday’ in the UK because the CEOs of the FTSE100 have made as much money by lunchtime on 4th January as the average British person will make all year.

Many people get stonking rich while destroying the environment, and the rich people who earn their wealth through relatively benign means have plenty of power to change things. Poor people have less capacity to change their lifestyles and the world around them. Climate change is inherently unjust.

What I’m trying to say is, wealth and power are incredibly tightly concentrated and to look at a grossly unequal system and say every person has equal responsibility to fix the mess we’re in just doesn’t make any sense.

We all have some power and some responsibility, but some have much more than others.

System change not climate change! Amirite?

But how do we achieve that when most of the people and institutions with the most wealth and power continue to shirk their responsibility?

In the end, it does come back to ordinary individual climate action by people like you and me. The people in charge rarely change things unless pushed to by the masses.

People’s climate march in London, 2014

By all means start with the lifestyle stuff: small changes to the way you shop, travel and do things around the house.

Don’t beat yourself up or criticize others for not being perfect. Swimming against the tide is hard and we’re all busy dealing with our own hectic lives. The system is set up to make unsustainable crap the easy option: be angry at the system, not the person.

And most importantly, don’t stop there. Take it to the next level by getting political and using your economic power more actively.

Here’s some things you can do to turn individual action into collective action:

  • Keep yourself informed, share knowledge and discuss climate issues with your friends and coworkers
  • Look up environmental policies and vote with the climate in mind. Talk about climate change if you get polled or surveyed
  • Go to talks and debates locally and ask the speaker a question about how climate change relates to their field
  • Contact shops and brands asking for more sustainable options, or explaining why you won’t buy certain products
  • Sign petitions and email your local representative about an issue you care about
  • Contact politicians and business leaders on social media about an issue you care about (and they can do something about)
  • Go to a real live protest. It makes a bigger impact because it takes more effort than a click
  • Volunteer for an NGO, charity or local community group. Ideally try and drag your friends along too
  • Join a climate-related group and start organizing in your community, or taking part in campaigns
  • Campaign for your university or workplace to make a specific change, like divesting from fossil fuels, switching to renewable energy or recycling
  • Join a union or industry group that advocates for environmental justice or your industry becoming greener

I think the most important role of climate-engaged individuals is to put pressure on companies, governments, cities and other institutions to make systemic changes.

These systemic changes will then help the less engaged people, and people who are struggling to just survive in the system as it is, to be more sustainable by making it more convenient, accessible and affordable. We need to get to a point where the easy way is the sustainable way.

I occasionally write articles here. Interested in climate, sustainability, social justice, politics, economics, pop culture…