When I was in second grade, on Earth Day, my teacher read us a story where a group of kids is getting sick from smog, so they persuade their community to adopt various behaviors to reduce pollution, like taking the bus instead of driving or using more eco-friendly brands of hairspray and other household products, and the smog clears.
I recall the story now, because it invites an interesting question: With the growth of a climate justice movement that frames global warming as a social justice issue caused by large corporations that is both rooted in and exacerbates preexisting inequities along racial and economic lines, it’s fair to ask if changing one’s personal behavior still has a role to play. The systemic approach to the climate crisis certainly has its advantages, but the notion of individual responsibility still has its own crucial value, if not as straightforwardly as people have traditionally believed.
It wasn’t too long ago (2006, to be exact) that An Inconvenient Truth concluded with Al Gore urging the audience to “make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero.” In 2009, Bill McKibben appealed to the public to cut down on unnecessary consumer waste in his article “Waste Not, Want Not”: “Getting out of the fix we’re in — if it’s still possible — requires in part that we relearn some very old lessons. We were once famously thrifty: Yankee frugality, straightening bent nails, saving string.”
But in this day and age, the idea that changing individual lifestyle habits can impact climate change has fallen out of fashion. While an earlier generation of activists talked of reducing one’s carbon footprint by recycling or taking shorter showers, the voices of today focus on political change to restructure the economy away from fossil fuels (one of the most prominent is that of the Sunrise Movement, of which I am a member). The narrative of individual responsibility is often dismissed as not only ineffective but a way for large polluting companies to deflect blame from themselves and obfuscate political efforts to make them get their emissions under their control.
In a Vox article last year, Mary Heglar, director of publications at the Natural Resources Defense Council, likened the consumer responsibility narrative to victim blaming: “When people come to me and confess their green sins, as if I were some sort of eco-nun, I want to tell them they are carrying the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes.”
Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos magazine, wrote: “While individuals are free to shape their lifestyles to align with their environmental values, eating salads and riding bikes aren’t going to save the world. Only forcing the fossil fuel industry to clean up its act will — and until that happens, I refuse to believe people should be shamed for living in the world we’ve built.”
The new systemic focus has several advantages — most importantly, it’s factually correct, at least in that individual behaviors constitute only a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions. The operations of 100 large corporations have been responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions since 1988. It is also true that big business has long promoted consumer responsibility to deflect attention away from itself; this goes back to the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad against public litter from Keep America Beautiful, a front organization for large companies who had an interest in preventing government regulatory action on plastic waste.
Moreover, the systemic approach may be more politically appealing on a mass scale. True or not, people don’t like to hear that they are to blame for the planet’s being on fire, and it’s much easier to unite people against exploitative corporations than against the neighbor who leaves his air conditioner on all day.
A preoccupation with personal consumption choices also has elitist connotations: It shames people for buying things that make their lives easier when, in many instances, there is no other option, or a greener option is more expensive.
This engrained elitism is in no small part why, for most of its history, the mainstream environmental movement has been viewed as the purview of white and upper middle class people. By contrast, the all-encompassing vision of the climate justice movement has helped it appeal to people of diverse backgrounds, winning crucial allies in the organized labor, immigrant rights and racial justice movements.
As a member of Sunrise, I enthusiastically support the climate justice movement’s goals. However, perhaps out of nostalgia for second grade Earth Day, I’m not entirely ready to say that we must choose between political action and personal responsibility, either. I may not obsess over it, but I do find ways to reduce my carbon footprint when practical — I always turn off the lights when I leave a room, and I do my best to recycle. I even stopped using drinking straws in high school and haven’t used one since.
When it comes down to it, I do these things because it’s important to me to not be a hypocrite: I feel that these habits make me a better activist for the environment by ensuring that I internalize the mindset I want the government to adopt. Furthermore, they allow me to demonstrate my commitment to other people: call it virtue signaling, but there is something to be said for showing others the strength of your convictions. I don’t really expect other people to follow my example, either; just that they see the actions I take has value in itself.
Making changes to one’s behavior to reduce one’s individual environmental impact, or even witnessing other people do the same, is valuable because it forces one to think about the personal costs that a true solution to climate change would entail. Those costs may be small and short-term compared to the cost of doing nothing, but giving up consumption choices that have driven our economy for generations has unavoidable costs, and the climate justice movement must acknowledge that.
Government policy should endeavor to minimize those costs as much as possible — and that’s what individuals, myself included, naturally do when trying to live greener lifestyles — but those costs won’t be insignificant, either. For the public to be willing to pay those costs, normalizing the idea of necessary changes to consumption, however small, is essential.
That normalization of environmentally conscious attitudes not only can help build support for climate policy, but it can change the behavior of corporations, even in the absence of policy. Those corporations are well aware that they can’t last long if people aren’t buying what they’re selling, and the growth of public environmental awareness really can make producers shift to more climate-friendly products. One such shift is currently occurring in the retail industry, due to the eco-conscious preferences of Gen Z; even if not every brand is as green as it claims, companies have made genuine changes in a surprisingly short time frame.
Another example is the growing number of banks pledging to divest from fossil fuel operations in response to mass pressure campaigns by organizations like the Sierra Club. Voluntary corporate pledges aren’t a substitute for enforceable government policy, and some will always be stronger and better adhered to than others, but the fact that having a climate pledge is quickly becoming an expectation in every major industry is itself encouraging news for the power of individual consumer behavior. More action will be needed to ensure that those pledges are fulfilled, but that is within the power of individuals to do, in part through the combined impact of their personal consumer choices.
So yes, forgoing a straw won’t save the planet, at least not on its own. But the basic idea of impacting climate change through one’s individual choices should not be disregarded either, even if it seems to belong to a bygone era. Taking practical steps to reduce one’s carbon footprint should not be thought of as separate from political action but rather as an integral part of it, that is vital to building the truly popular movement that climate justice advocates work toward. I guess the kids in that Earth Day story were onto something after all.
Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.