The problem with the ‘individuals or companies/nations’ question when discussing climate change is that it’s a circle. If individuals reduce their demand for various products and services, those things won’t happen or be used as often, reducing overall production by companies and governments, reducing emissions. From the other side, if companies and governments refuse to continue producing or facilitating certain items and activities, the consumption of these things will also decrease, reducing emissions. The core question is: who needs to change first? Do individuals need to change consumer preferences to the extent that organisations are forced to change, because the demand for their products has been decimated? Or do corporations and nations need to enact top-down reforms and take the question out of individual hands? What will be most effective (which, at least in part, means: what will be easiest)?
Because make no mistake: either way, it will not be easy. Getting major corporations that are ultimately beholden to their shareholders to not put profit front and centre will be hard, and will require re-envisioning the whole basis of business (and given how intimately big business and the government tend to be intertwined, national action will probably figure into this challenge too). Getting almost eight billion people with an unfathomable variety of needs, opportunities, preferences, cultural norms and access to coordinate spending behaviour to the point of having a sizeable global impact will probably be even harder. It’s easy for people to talk to their friends and their two hundred Twitter followers, but are these conversations reaching rural China? What about India, Brazil and Indonesia? Asking the real questions about what will have the biggest, simplest, fastest impact and then not spending time, money and energy on the rest of the endless list of potential solutions until option A is shown not to work is probably our best bet for actually getting something done and keeping our coastal cities and island nations above water. We can’t do everything at once. We need to decide what the most effective plan is, and start there. Options B, C and D will have to wait.
Currently, there is a lot of stock being put in the power of individuals. And hey, sometimes the impact of one person is truly spectacular (Greta Thunberg comes to mind). But I am just so damn sceptical that we will ever be able to coordinate human behaviour across almost two hundred different nations to make any kind of real and, crucially, lasting impact. Yes, it’s true that not all of those two hundred nations really figure into the carbon emissions equation; the top three greenhouse gas emitters – China, the EU and the US – contribute more than half of global emissions, while the bottom 100 emitters contribute a mere 3.5% of global emissions combined. If we’re talking about making an impact, it’s clear how we could narrow down the whole world of countries to figure out where to start.
I understand why people are so invested in the power of individual action; it allows us to feel like we have a smidge of control over what is actually an enormous, terrifying and difficult to control situation. It is scary to believe that nothing we do will make a difference because then the vast majority of the world’s population is doomed to live out the rest of their lives watching the world slowly sink into a climate catastrophe and not being able to do anything about it. There is a lot to be said about the psychology of living on a rapidly degrading planet and believing that you are helpless to do anything at all to effect positive change must be a big part of why people feel really sad and stressed about it all.
And of course, the relationship between companies and consumers is a lot closer than people think. Most of the companies producing fossil fuels – and taking flack for causing a huge percentage of emissions – are not actually burning the majority of those fuels themselves. These fuels are being supplied to households, petrol stations, airlines and governments. It is true that if, suddenly, no one needed the lights on in their house or fuel for their car then energy companies would have a lot less to do. So yes, if it were possible to increase efficiency and reduce demand by a globally significant amount, it would have an impact. People using energy is what causes climate change, and most of those people are just turning on their lights and driving their cars, not running massive industrial operations.
But as I said, the question is not whether a concerted global effort to reduce individual emissions would work. It’s whether it’s actually feasible, and easier than calling for top-down changes.
It’s hard to argue that reforms from above which mandate the necessary changes from individuals and companies are not the simplest method of making a difference. Rather than using marketing campaigns, social media and local events to change behaviour and attitudes one person at a time, small groups of people heading governments and key corporations can make millions of people’s worth of individual changes with a single piece of legislation. If AOC’s Green New Deal goes through in America and is actually enacted, it will probably do more for reducing emissions – in part through facilitating individual changes! – than all the do-gooders with metal straws and veggie sausages combined. It goes deeper than just using our current systems less or doing so more efficiently. To make effective, long-term, sustainable changes that will allow us to mitigate the worst of climate change not only now but, ideally, for the rest of human existence, we need to overhaul infrastructure, something that well-meaning individuals cannot do on their own. We need extensive, sustainable public transport, efficient houses and better urban planning, all of which are the purview of government departments and manufacturers. We need average citizens to support and use these systems, of course, but we need the powers that be to make them a reality.
You know where I’m going to fall on this, though it’s not just me. It is often said that voting for planet-conscious candidates is the single most important thing you can do to fight climate change, and I tend to agree with that. Of course, every car taken off the road, every light turned off and every tree not cut down does reduce emissions in an infinitesimal way. But make no mistake, the change is tiny. Comprehensive policy that protects the rainforests, invests in clean energy and levies heavy carbon taxes on high polluting vehicles will always dwarf the actions of well-meaning individuals, and that seems clearly like the best place to start.
(Why not both? Of course, keep making changes and adapting to our changing world, especially if it makes you feel more hopeful. I know the personal guilt still keeps me awake at night sometimes and I am making changes accordingly! But don’t do it because you truly think anxious Brits and Americans drinking almond milk is going to solve the climate crisis. It is not.)