The Climate Lemon

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

individual climate action man riding bike

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.

Individual climate action is important

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.

Abel and Cole organic veg box. individual climate action
Organic Abel and Cole veg box. (Photo by Tegan Tallullah).

But it’s not enough to change the system

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, 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.

Neoliberalism and the trap of individual responsibility

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.

consumerism shopping mall individual climate action
Consumer rush. (Photo by Anna Dziubinska on 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’m writing 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.

Getting the balance right: From individual to collective action

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.

Climate march 2014 individual climate action
People’s climate march 2014, London (Photo by Tegan Tallullah).

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
  • Campaign for your university or workplace to make a specific change, like divesting from fossil fuels, switching to renewable energy or recycling.

Read my earlier post on three simplest ways to fight climate change in your everyday life for my suggestion of two lifestyle actions and one political action.

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 to be more sustainable by making it more convenient and accessible.

We need to get to a point where the easy way is the sustainable way, because most people are just too lazy to make a massive uphill effort. And to be honest, they shouldn’t have to.

What you can do right now

Are you feeling pumped up and ready for action? Maybe even ready to add to your new years resolutions? (If they haven’t already faded along with your NYE hangover).

Comment below with one thing you’re going to change in your lifestyle and one thing you’re going to do to push your city, university, boss, government of favourite brand to take action!

Want tips on the individual action side? I’ve thought about the barriers that usually block people from doing this stuff, and created three handy checklists to help you take five simple climate actions even if you’re skint, busy or lazy. Just subscribe to blog updates to get all three instantly for free.

Stay tuned for more coming soon on collective action, but the list above is a great start for ideas.

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14 comments

  • I’ve thought about the barriers that usually block people from doing this stuff, and created three handy checklists to help you take five simple climate actions even if you’re skint, busy or lazy. Just subscribe to blog updates to get all three instantly for free.

    translation: I care more about growing my brand than fighting climate change.

    • Believe me mle, if my priority was building a brand I would choose almost any other topic rather than climate change. This blog is a passion project to help fight climate change. And anyway, growing a brand means growing your reach, which hopefully means getting more people to act on climate. That’s kind of the point of having a blog…

  • It takes both, in my opinion. I strive for both individual and collective action and still try to enjoy life in the midst of activism. I have the privilege of driving a fuel cell car in California, so with one consumer choice, I cut my carbon footprint in half. Now I work on the other half of my carbon footprint and not get too legalistic with myself or others. We are all in this together. Eat the cake. Drink the wine.

  • Interesting article and a conversation that seems to be popping up everywhere I look. As an individual who has gone to what some would call ‘extremes’ to limit my personal footprint, I feel uncomfortable reading things like this.
    My thinking and actions come from a ‘deep/dark’ green place. Mostly, when others talk of individual action, they are coming from a ‘light’ green place.
    Individual action is one thing we can and do have power over. Sure, we need to apply pressure at all levels, but the most immediate pressure we can apply is to not buy what they’re selling. The reason so many rich companies exist is because we have bought their stuff. Stop buying things we don’t truly need and see what happens.
    The individuals who can take personal responsibility are the top 10% of polluters – that includes the likes of you and me. The poorer people of the world don’t need to do much and can’t do much, you’re right, but they aren’t the problem. It’s us who are the problem and we have the power to change things – but only if we make the large personal changes required of us. Everything else is a cop-out.
    Yes, the system must change. The system can change if we stop buying all those things we really don’t need. I think that’s the only way anything is really going to change. We can protest and write letters till the cows come home and we will be rewarded with small tweaks of the system. But the system is about supply and demand (demand from us). Stop the demand for all the unnecessary stuff and supply will stop.
    Sorry for the rant. Gets a bit hard to hold it in at times.

    • Hey Jo, thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

      First of all I want to reiterate that I think taking acting to reduce our personal carbon footprints is important and I think it’s fantastic that you’re doing that. I think I mostly agree with where you’re coming from but have a different view on tactics/strategy. I think you’re right that if all of us in the developed world stopped consuming so much stuff and reduced our footprints to a sustainable level, we would change the system. But, that’s not happening, is it? Environmentalists have been trying to get people to consume less for decades and it hasn’t worked because it’s going against the capitalist consumerist system which is so powerful and all encompassing.

      In the current system, you’re not realistically going to be able to persuade everyone (in the rich countries) to swim against the tide. You’re just not. And a minority of environmentally-conscious people reducing their footprints, even to zero or below, is not enough to solve our climate crisis.

      Most people just go with the flow, go with what’s mainstream. That’s why I believe pushing for systemic changes and mainstreaming sustainability is the most crucial thing. Looking for high leverage points that will make sustainability easier and more accessible for large numbers of people at once. None of this is instead of personal action – we need all of the above.

      Anyway, this is getting too long! I’ve got some ideas for a follow-up post on theories of change so I hope you’ll come read that and share your thoughts again. 🙂

  • What does one think of when he thinks of a Dragon breathing? Majestic, mystical, terrifying, destructive? Dragons are completely beautiful in their own way, they are so capable of providing warmth and defence with their breath yet can simultaneously burn whole cities.

    Now let us talk about something much more destructive yet in its own way constructive, the breathe of a human. How much hate, suffering, ignorance do you think you cause to the people around you? Sure you probably have somewhat of an estimate, a little negativity here and there, some blunt hate once in a full moon; What about the real cause of suffering you cause, your ignorance. How much terrible advice have you given out? How many people did you lead to believe you’re doing well? How many of those fools are following your trail of tears? None of this has to be conscious decisions, It’s almost a byproduct of your very breath and frankly indirectly it is.

    You thought the suffering you cause family and friends was bad?? Please! Your every breath causes literal ripples of hell across the globe. How many bled for chocolate you ate? How many slaved for the gadgets you consume? How many melted for the minerals you play with? How many trees fell just to be thrown away at your whim? How many oceans lay fallow because of your greed? How many concentration lead lives of chicken did you inflict? How many were shot for the oil that sustains every aspect of your life? How many fishermen sat hungry from the pollution you caused? How many hurricanes were caused from your trail? How much did it cost to sustain your breath? How many burned from the dragon’s breath?

    • Hey DumbDeep, thanks for your comment. Very vivid imagery! I see what you’re saying about the impact our lives have on the world. People need to be more aware of the connections. But of course it’s not about blaming ordinary people for this mess. An economic system where people cause harm just by doing normal stuff is a broken economic system not fit for purpose. We can help build a better economy if we work together! 🙂

      • The truth is our very existence means that something else is to die, indirectly or directly for it. There is no way around it. In the capitalistic world, great excess is wasted but much less than a communist one. There should simply be fees for wasting materials and a recyling culture created. Sponsorship for technology and companies that can replace the excess and waste of the past are also important. When involving government in interfering with the lives of its people, More often than not, it has undesirable consequences. We should sponsor change, not force it.

        • I agree there should be taxes on waste and pollution, maybe on actual resource use too, and incentives for sustainable innovation. I think the state has a big role to play, but so do citizens, companies, cities, NGOs and everyone else.

  • Thank you for this article.

    Part of what you mention is often called the Tragedy of the Commons, where the belief is that individual actions don’t matter because your neighbours will take advantage of your offers. You make some good arguments against it, mostly by mentioning the power of collective voting with our wallets. I believe that that’s the most impactful strategy you can use as a consumer, other than climbing on the barricades.

    We are seeing some initiatives in the Netherlands that show that going green doesn’t necessarily have to cost money, which appears to be one of the main inhibitors in my surroundings. There’s a new energy company through which you can green energy for a lower price than at traditional companies, thanks to them cutting out the middleman and letting you buy energy directly from green suppliers (i.e. a farmer with some windmills).

    The same goes for some of the more common biological products, such as milk, edging towards prices for their non-biological counterparts. While not necessarily fully eco-friendly, they are at the very least more so than the alternative.

    Overall, the point I’m trying to make is that consumer options to vote with their money for climate change are appearing to become more common and economically viable. That shows that there’s enough interest among the population to support these options, which in turn strengthens (at least my) belief in your personal actions.

    • Hi Friso, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree using our economic power and ‘voting with our wallets’ is an impactful way to create change. I think it’s even better to follow it up by telling the companies what you’re doing and why, and by taking part in petitions and campaigns. It’s really exciting to hear about the energy innovations going on in the Netherlands! People assume green costs more, but as you say that doesn’t need to be the case at all. In a lot of cases clean energy is cheaper these days, which is a real turning point I think. 🙂

  • Thanks Tegan! It’s so important to balance individual and collective actions and work with high leverage points in our efforts to limit climate change. A few years ago, I started the social venture Earth Deeds (www.earthdeeds.org), which allows individuals and groups to account for their carbon emissions and support meaningful sustainability projects — locally, nationally, or globally. We aim for “Carbon Consciousness” rather than “Carbon Neutrality” so the projects don’t even have to have measurable CO2 reductions. I think this is another way we can balance individual and collective action and direct our funds or time to projects we feel are making a real difference!

    • Hi Daniel, thanks for reading and commenting. I really like what you’re doing with Earth Deeds – thanks for sharing!

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Hey, I’m Tegan

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and communications professional. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos. Wanna chat? I'm at @TeganTallullah on Twitter.

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