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Does personal action matter in the fight against climate change?

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If you're reading this, you probably had something like an ecological awakening at one point in your life. You grew up taking in what the world has to offer without much questioning (at least up to a certain age). You grew up accepting the constant cycle of new products making older, still functioning versions obsolete, fashion trend cycles accelerating every year and the convenience of single use items ruling over re-usability. Ever since your awakening, you can see these destructive realities crystal clear and are reflecting on them critically.

We are over producing, over consuming, and throwing away totally intact things. You realize that these actions harm the planet by polluting it and emitting too many greenhouse gases. If you've done your reading, you also know that not all parts of the world are equally responsible. The lives of historically marginalized communities, such as low income, indigenous communities and communities of colour, are usually threatened the most by the disruptive and destructive consequences of climate change. They are also usually the communities who contributed to it the least (see: climate justice).

The endless list of individual lifestyle changes

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So you start trying to avoid single use items. You buy less. You reduce air travel or even try to completely abstain from it. You may even try to only buy local and organic food and reduce the amount of animal products you consume. You try to use things for as long as they function. Fix things that are easy or inexpensive to fix. Ride your bicycle to work instead of using the car. Buy eco-friendly laundry detergent. This list could go on forever.

But another part of this ecological awakening is wondering if your individual actions even matter. Can you, as a miniscule part of a whole bigger entity actually protect the climate? Some people argue that putting the saving of our planet into the hands of individuals is a rather mischievous strategy of big companies and governments to absolve themselves of responsibility. The latter are usually the largest polluters. If they change their business practices, they will actually have the largest impact on reducing greenhouse gases.

Individual vs. collective action?

Sometimes taking individual action gets pitted against trying to achieve collective change through policy making. The latter being seen as the superior way (read more about this debate over here). Holding big companies and governments accountable and trying to force them to change through politics can definitely be an extremely necessary and impactful option. But it's usually slow.

We have to keep at it diligently and up the pressure. But today we also want to illustrate that it's not a matter of individual vs. collective action when it comes to saving the planet. It's a matter of individual and collective action.

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The impact of individual action

Individual action can definitely be impactful. Will de Freitas, environment and energy editor at The Conversation, conducted research on social influence in regards to eco-friendly habits.

Clearly, in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions, a single person’s contribution is basically irrelevant (much like a single vote in an election). But my research, first in my masters and now as part of my PhD, has found that doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as 'normal'.

Half of the respondents in a survey conducted by Freitas, who knew someone that had given up flying because of climate change, said the now fly less because of their example.

[...] around three quarters said [their example] had changed their attitudes towards flying and climate change in some way. These effects were increased if a high-profile person had given up flying, such as an academic or someone in the public eye. In this case, around two thirds said they fly less because of this person, and only 7% said it has not affected their attitudes.

These statistics sound pretty impressive and impactful, don't they? According to Freitas, what was important for this social influence to have an effect was whether the person setting the example was walking the talk. If a politician advocated for fighting climate change but regularly took a private jet, they were considered a hypocrite.

The takeaway from Freitas findings? If you're consistent with your actions and explain to people how they help save our planet, you will very likely inspire some people you interact with to adopt some eco-friendly habits.

If the adults can't lead by example, the children probably will

A study by Danielle Lawson [et al.] showed that environmentally conscious children who actively try to save the planet are able to make their parents adapt the same lifestyle - even if the parents previously displayed low concern for climate change. So, go ahead, teach your children, godchildren, nieces and nephews about what they can do to save the planet and watch a ripple effect take place.

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Another argument to consider when deciding whether to partake in individual action against climate change is the fact that it gives you a more solid feeling that you are doing something. While policy change can feel intangible and slow, through personal action you can experience immediate changes and results in your daily life, as well as perceive the positive influence you have on other people's habits. This can give you feelings of agency and hope in this big scale situation.

And what about systemic change?

However, personal action alone will never be enough, even if it's an important and valid part of the puzzle. The charity Climate Science believes education is key to solving the climate crisis. They want to empower people to achieve "real, systemic climate solutions".

We highly recommend checking out their website, because they offer a big selection of courses for free that help you get savvy about climate change and how to resolve it. One of those courses is called Personal Action, teaching you about all the areas you can implement changes. What they found and support by scientific data shows the big problem we end up with if we only rely on individual change:

Let’s consider a [very unrealistic] hypothetical scenario where everyone in the world chooses to take high-impact personal actions. Everyone changes to a plant based diet, takes fewer flights, lives car-free, and purchases zero-carbon energy for their home. Even with these assumptions, the total reduction [of global greenhouse gas emissions] is only 50% .

This is why collective change needs to be part of the equation. So how can you contribute towards it? Here's a list of ideas, ranked from easiest/most accessible to most difficult:

  1. Share educational info you come across on social media to your accounts It's very low effort and you might end up influencing a few people on adopting new lifestyle choices. If a topic goes viral, it can have an effect on public awareness and opinion.

  2. Sign a petition It's been shown that petitions aren't very successful in achieving political change, but it shows policy makers that a great number of people care about the issue and it can raise public awareness and influence the public opinion.

  3. Vote for politicians that have an impactful climate agenda Tell your social circle to vote for the same politicians. Hold the politicians accountable to their promises.

  4. Message your government/politicians in charge and demand change / Message brands that have wasteful business practices and demand change Ask your social circle to do the same. Hold governments and companies accountable as a collective (e.g. via protests, see below).

  5. Debate climate change and educate on it in a non-preachy way with skeptical friends/family members Educate your social circle about buying less, buying second hand, etc. Maybe you can cause a ripple effect if you convince them to change their lifestyles and they themselves will carry on the message. This is how things move from individual to collective level.

  6. Join and/or organize protests It's been shown that big scale, peaceful protests have the highest success rate in achieving change compared to mid- or small scale protests and violent protests.

  7. Choose a field of study/career that works on developing big scale climate solutions

  8. Become a politician that tries to enforce eco-friendly policies

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Individual action is the driver of collective, systemic action

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If you paid attention, you may have thought: "but aren't all of these, in a way, individual actions?" Yes, they are. You alone may not be able to influence a politician or a company to change their ways, but as big collective you may have an impact. You alone cannot hold them accountable, but as a big collective it's more likely that the pressure makes them change. If you become a scientist working on technological solutions to clean up our oceans and recycle the trash into durable products, you are individually working your butt off, but are part of a bigger team that achieves big solutions!

As long as companies are not changing their practices out of goodwill (why should they, they are making billions off of their current ones), individual action is the driver of collective, systemic action. We can achieve that by putting pressure on policy makers and global players, while adopting eco-friendly lifestyles. Nobody is and has to be perfect, but together we can address those whose changes will be more impactful for stopping global warming.

Photo by Pam Ivey on Unsplash.

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