Climate change and the individual

Climate change and the individual

I am fascinated by the conversations about climate change. Once you get past the basic ideas of the planet warming and severe sea level rises and major loss of life that comes with it (among other Very Bad Things), you get into the meat of what is potentially the most confronting and serious issue to have ever faced humanity. As I’ve written about before, it is all well and good to shun a plastic straw and want to save the planet, but asking what it’s really going to take for us to prevent undoable damage that will cause heavy loss of life presents much harder questions.

I’ve read a lot about climate change recently and all of the books and articles I’ve read have concluded the same thing I intimated in my prior blog: we have to dismantle free-market capitalism as we know it. Modern capitalism is predicated on the pursuit of constant growth. The pursuit of constant growth has resulted in globalisation, industrialisation and the burning of an unimaginable amount of fossil fuels. The burning of these fossil fuels has released gases which cause the planet to get warmer, destabilising the climate and causing unmitigated environmental chaos. I mean, living things have existed on the planet for millions and millions of years. We have brought the entire Earth to the brink of environmental catastrophe in a few hundred years. That would be impressive, if it wasn’t so depressing.

But while the planet burns and I buy solid toothpaste tabs for an extortionate price to avoid putting another plastic tube into landfill, I am interested in going beyond just “we have to stop climate change!” to grappling with the material issues stopping us from actually doing it. Of these, there are many, but I think it’s crucial to confront the hard issues and the real reasons that climate change continues to thrive, even if it’s not flattering. Without being able to appreciate where we’re truly starting from, it will be hard to move forward.

There are so many powerful, global structures standing in the way of environmental efforts: free trade laws, the fossil fuel industry, political and diplomatic relationships and free market capitalism, among others. The discussions around climate change are only just starting to attack these structures directly and openly, after many years spent denying climate change, denying its causes or paying lip service to the idea of a warming planet while still allowing the fossil fuel industry to expand rampantly. As the conversation begins to move past plastic straws, corporations and governments are coming under fire.

However, despite a growing movement to hold the biggest polluting industries accountable for their ongoing environmental sins, individuals are still being encouraged to carry some of the burden for addressing climate change themselves. Despite it being the case that most emissions do come from massive conglomerates and national programs, there is a renewed call for people to eat less meat, drive less, fly less, procreate less and overall just consume less, to reduce the thriving demand keeping our insane levels of consumption on the up.

I tend to feel like the conversation about how much individuals should take responsibility for addressing climate change focuses on the wrong things. Yes, every car taken off the road, every pound of beef not bought and every straw kept out of the ocean is a tiny win for the planet. Given that there are seven billion of us, those small changes could add up to something significant, especially if you consider the broader impact of voting with your money and showing industries that wasteful, high-carbon products are no longer as desirable as more sustainable alternatives.

But really, I feel like divorcing the role of individuals in tackling climate change from the role of companies and governments is misguided. Companies and governments are made up of people. Every company has a CEO or director. Every government is made up of collection of individuals, some of whom, if they wanted to, could include ‘drafting groundbreaking environmental policy’ on their list of personal contributions to the fight against global warming.

Every person has influence, often beyond themselves, whether that’s on a family, a classroom or a company. All the people who can dismantle polluting companies are just that: people. For them, individual responsibility goes beyond meatless Mondays and starts to have extreme, global impacts. To suggest that it’s up to companies to do something will allow a lot of people to avoid taking charge, because they don’t feel like they’re senior enough or that it’s just not their job, without asking themselves whether they could be the person to ask the hard questions and try to make change in the collectives that need to be shifting their priorities most of all. Individual responsibility blurs into collective responsibility, as each groundbreaking collective is made up of individuals who have decided to act.

But people can be reticent to make small changes in their own lives, let alone making waves on a bigger platform in the name of sustainability. In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh talks about how climate change poses a threat to the defining value of modern politics: freedom. I’d never considered this angle before but on reflection, I think there’s some truth in it. Much of what the modern economy strives to offer is choice, which is in theory a form of freedom in its own way. Globalisation has allowed (some of) us to move across the planet along with transporting numerous goods and materials. Free trade agreements, the free market, the free press – the right to freedom resonates with many of us, people who have grown up with unprecedented access to resources and cheap and convenient products and feel the pinch when someone suggests that that access may be limited or taken away.

The idea of giving up something for the collective good is moving further out of sight, as the wealth gap widens and public services suffer while a few people take home bigger paychecks than they will ever spend. I know I feel it too; the thought that I would see less of the world or not have a child because it would help the planet and my fellow humans makes me tense up. These are things I want to do. These are things I can do. The idea that I shouldn’t, even though I can, challenges a lot of the individualistic, capitalist culture many of us have been surrounded by our whole lives.

Alas, most of the research suggests that that’s what it will take, whether we make these choices ourselves or governments and corporations do it for us. The good news is, as Naomi Klein explains in detail in her book This Changes Everything, that for most of us, climate change is just the impetus we need to improve society. Addressing climate change and moving back to a lower-carbon world will involve a move back to local production, better public transport, communities that are more easily connected to healthcare and schools and a general reduction in the capitalism and consumerism that has led us to this place to begin with. Even those of us who are lucky in this damaged political and economic landscape still stand to benefit from, uh, a functioning planet, less pollution, a way of living that doesn’t threaten to kill us all and relief from the insane culture of overwork and overconsumption that harms almost everyone. Essentially, the world that we need to create to prevent irreversible damage to our planet is one that will make all of our lives better. Different, yes, but better, in the long run. The other option is an accelerating descent into an unstable ecosystem that will drown, choke or crush large swathes of humanity. What’s it to be?

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