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Do individual actions really count in the fight against the climate crisis?

Two writers go head to head on the defining question of our generation
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Whether individual or collective, one thing is certain: action needs to be taken. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
Whether individual or collective, one thing is certain: action needs to be taken. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

Can any one person really make a difference in the fight against the climate crisis?

Many people ask themselves this question. We know that the climate crisis is the greatest challenge global society is going to face in our lifetimes, but we also know that climate change is overwhelmingly driven by the pollution of large companies and governments and not the actions of individuals. 

Still, many people try to make ‘eco-friendly’ choices in their everyday lives and commit themselves to fighting climate change in whatever way they can. Do these individual actions really make a difference? 

Focusing on individual action to fight the climate crisis is a waste of time

Many mornings, I roll out of bed and wander to a nearby coffee shop. While standing in line, I eye the other patrons’ hands, looking for signs of a reusable mug that will inevitably bring on feelings of guilt. 

“Good for them,” I think. I purchase a medium latte. “Is dairy milk okay?” the cashier asks. I nod yes, mostly because I’m unwilling to pay the 50 cent upcharge for oat milk. 

These daily interactions and choices bring the climate crisis to the forefront of my mind and make me reflect on my role in it as a consumer. Although I try to make all the ‘right’ choices, the amount of options and the relative futility of my actions only exacerbates my anxiety. 

For many of us, the pessimism and stress that stems from the fact that our world will soon be unlivable often feels overwhelming. 

But it’s not one single person’s fault, and putting too much focus on individual actions can hinder progress toward effective climate action. For example, only 100 companies have been responsible for more than 70 per cent of global emissions since 1988. In 2017, the energy sector comprised 73 per cent of total global emissions. 

Statistics like these put into perspective just how desperately systemic change is needed.

It’s an understatement to say the situation is dire. Without widespread action, the seemingly far-off possibilities of flooded cities, compromised food systems, and further blows to the earth’s already decreasing biodiversity will rapidly become our reality.

Making choices in a flawed system is not going to get us anywhere. There are whole companies built upon greenwashing, or advertising a product as specifically being good for the environment. Many of the claims they make, however, do not hold up to scrutiny. No matter how much consumers try to spend their money ethically, individual choices can only go so far. 

Policy changes are necessary before individual action can be truly impactful. For example, choosing not to eat red meat does have a small impact, but we would see a much bigger impact from policy changes that stop the deforestation of rainforests for beef production, which is the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.

The short answer to whether one person can make a difference is “no.” The longer answer is that we need to reframe how we think about individual action to relieve individuals of the burden of a crisis that they didn’t create, while still working toward collective goals.

In the long run, yes, we need to make fundamental changes to the way we live, eat, work, and consume the planet’s resources to maintain a livable planet. We do all have to care. But instead of fretting about your choice to eat red meat or drink dairy milk, shift your energy elsewhere. Have conversations with friends and family about the impacts of the climate crisis that could be meaningful to them and hope that they will shift their focus toward effective political action and enforceable policies to hit concrete goals in emissions reductions. 

The helplessness we feel when individual action doesn’t work can breed cynicism, and that’s the last thing we need. True, it’s infinitely harder to conceive of what we can do to help the environment beyond daily small choices. But if we spend less time worrying whether we forgot to bring a reusable cup to the coffee shop and more time thinking about how we can educate other people, raise awareness, and participate in collective action, then we can create a movement strong enough to save the planet and ourselves. 

— Hannah Carty

Individual action can be a catalyst for the big changes we desperately need

It is essential to understand that the problem facing our planet isn’t just one of policy or agency, but of anxiety.

Gen Z believes in the climate crisis. But we’ve also been told since our childhood that it’s preventable, and that recycling and ditching gasoline-powered cars would count as ‘doing our part.’ 

We were never told that corporate giants in the Global North produce the vast majority of greenhouse house emissions, much more than any single household. We were never told that the crisis would be here — in the form of rapidly changing weather patterns, agricultural shocks, and mass extinctions — before we even owned homes we could fit with solar panels.

Hence the anxiety, the existential dread that we’re heading into a cataclysm that we can do nothing to stop. Governments are useless, businesses are uninterested, and we will be the first generation to pay the price for their myopic greed.

But if you can find hope, even just one ember of it, then you can see past the darkness.

So often, we talk of individual action in the narrow sense that was presented to us as children: individual acts of sustainability that present little inconvenience to our everyday life. We need to change what we mean by individual action. We need to think of it as the grounds for our hope — a diverse array of behavioural changes, some quite costly, that will motivate a consistent commitment to climate action. 

Psychologist Elke Wuber of Princeton University elegantly calls this the realistic “silver buckshot,” as opposed to the silver bullet we were led to believe in. She derives the case for personal action from psychology. 

We are a species “not known for its rational deliberation,” she writes. We focus on the short term; we keep to the status quo when change seems difficult. That’s why people who believe in the climate crisis can still resist making any adjustments to their lifestyle.

We need to act like the climate crisis is a crisis to motivate other, more important actions. Decades of psychology research demonstrate that human beings simply can’t make changes just by willing it — we need to do the work to make our new choices an ingrained habit. 

So if we can make permanent behavioural shifts on the basis of our climate awareness, we will surely be more willing to commit to the more impactful, political organizing that climate action requires. This is the conclusion Wuber comes to, although her suggestions are aimed at policymakers who want to encourage more public support for climate policy.

But I believe we should all take up the charge to make personal changes ourselves, because this crisis is also a justice problem, and the political action it requires of us is going to cost us in time and money. If we can’t learn to accept inconveniences to our own lifestyles, we will never be ready to truly organize and force governments to curb the parasitic corporations that are leeching our planet. 

In this sense, individual action becomes much more expansive than mere recycling. It becomes the personal manifestation of a true, genuine resolve to make change. You learn the work by doing the work, and there’s no shortcut around it. 

— Tahmeed Shafiq