By: Leah Fattor
There’s a belief in the environmentalist movement that what we do on an individual basis doesn’t matter, since the largest contributors to climate change are not individuals, but rather industries (e.g. fossil fuels, livestock farming, deforestation, etc.) (Williamson, et. al.). Thus, the biggest changes that need to occur to stop climate change must take place on the corporate and national/international governmental levels. However, individual action still matters.
Changing individual behavior to live more sustainably is not and should not be about absolving companies and policymakers of responsibility for fighting climate change. Instead, it should be used to supplement and strengthen collective action and political response as well as changing our culture.
Living a Sustainable Lifestyle
Dedicating yourself to living more sustainably can supplement and strengthen collective action and political response by deepening one’s commitment to environmental causes. If you already compost, your dedication to, say, the reduction of food waste on college campuses, will only be reinforced by the fact that you “walk the walk” in your personal life. This can go the other way as well. Knowing you eat a lot of red meat may make you less likely to want to protest livestock farming practices, as doing so can make you feel hypocritical (despite the fact that one person’s red meat consumption is exponentially less important than changing livestock farming). Deepening commitment is important because it will help ensure people will show up when it truly does count, e.g. voting.
Individual action is also significant because of the effects of voting with your wallet. While to make the largest impact and ensure lasting change we need government regulation, businesses do respond to consumer demand. For example, companies aren’t simply creating more electric car models because they care about climate change or because regulations are forcing them to: they’re mainly making electric cars because they see Tesla and know there’s a huge market (Riley).
Change Starts with the Individual
Changing one’s behavior is also important because it can help create a cultural shift that could actually have a big impact in the fight against climate change. Changing your own habits can affect other people’s. A survey conducted by a Cardiff University researcher found that half of the respondents who knew someone who stopped flying because of climate change fly less because of their example. Furthermore, around 75% of people said this changed their attitudes towards flying and climate change in some way. If someone in the public eye gave up flying, the number increased to two thirds who fly less because of this person, and over 90% said it affected their attitudes (Westlake). A person’s average social network size is 611 people (McCormick, et. al.), so there is a great opportunity for creating cultural change, starting with ourselves.
Challenging Fast Fashion
Changing oneself to change the culture could have big impacts across a variety of areas (Williamson, et. al.), but one example of how this could be beneficial is in fashion. In the age of social media, everyone is always on display, so your clothes are too. Instead of embracing today’s norms—shopping at fast fashion brands (e.g. Zara, H&M, Fashion Nova, Forever 21, Shein, Asos, etc.), never repeating outfits on your feed, constantly buying new clothes and getting rid of the old (even if you donate)— and therefore emboldening others to do so as well, we should embrace the sustainable: thrifting, clothing swaps, repairing what we own, and buying less. Americans throw away 10.5 million tons of clothing each year, so fashion is truly an area where a cultural change spurred by individual change could have a big impact (Leon).
Time to Take Responsibility
Furthermore, changing our culture through changing individual behavior will lay the groundwork for the systemic shift that needs to take place to truly solve the climate crisis. If everyone starts to decrease their consumption of beef, when the political conditions are finally right, a big change to the agricultural system will be less impactful, as we have already been tapering consumption (Mark).
Additionally, individual action matters because we need to take personal responsibility for the climate crisis, as human beings. If we don’t, we run the risk of relying on a reactive cycle of building solutions. Technological solutions will grow exponentially, but so will problems, and there is always the possibility that the technological solution won’t come fast enough (or the administration won’t implement it) (Dong). We need to change our culture to one that takes responsibility for climate change, on all levels, so we can truly solve it instead of simply applying a band-aid.
Finally, it’s also important to note that much individual change, i.e. that which is affordable to each of us, has essentially no downside, but many tangential benefits. Eating locally grown produce and less red meat is not only healthier for you but also supports your local farmers. Making sure your house is well-insulated will save you money in the future on heating costs. Storing your food properly makes it last longer and decreases your personal food waste. Changing your lightbulbs to LEDs will save you energy costs.
Individual action matters. And, with very few drawbacks to those of us who are privileged enough and have the ability to change, it’s something we must do.