As must be clear from everything I’ve written on the topic, I don’t believe that focusing on individual changes is going to make even the tiniest dent in addressing climate change. Many people agree with this. As soon as you dig into the issue, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that Brits eating fewer burgers or frequent flyers only flying ten times a year instead of twelve does not capture the scale of the climate crisis. Climate change speaks to how we plunder the planet for parts as if these resources are infinite, which they aren’t. It speaks to our obsession with growth, novelty, consumption and convenience. It speaks to the sense of ownership some nations and individuals feel over the natural world, regardless of who or what slips through the cracks along the way. To understand climate change is to understand that this can’t be solved with comfortable quick fixes. It is going to take a reimagining of the way billions of people live their lives and huge changes to modern society as we have come to understand it. It is so much bigger than whether or not you use a bag for life or brave the cycle to work even when it’s raining.
Even if we put individual actions into perspective, it is still worth making easy swaps that do ensure that one fewer plastic straw or cheap t-shirt is mindlessly thrown into landfill. But if you truly believe that without mass systemic changes most of these actions carry very little weight, then it does seem a lot less appealing to make huge sacrifices, like going 100% vegan or never travelling again or not having kids if you don’t think it makes a difference. So what can you do? What does it mean to think consciously about your choices in practise, even if that doesn’t mean blindly giving up things you love if you doubt the impact?
There are two principles that guide me. The first is to vote for governments and policies that might impede your ability to continue your beloved, but carbon costly, activities. While we all talk passionately about the role of companies and governments in addressing the climate crisis, I wonder if it’s made clear that many of the actions the government is being encouraged to take will stop us from leading our fossil fuel-funded lives without restriction. Imploring the government to step up is important because it is only huge, powerful organisations that have the means to change behaviour on a significant enough scale, not because these groups can solve climate change without it ever affecting our day-to-day lives. For you to go vegetarian in isolation will have a tiny impact, but if the government mandated reduced meat consumption, the many tonnes of meat not eaten (and farmed) will have a big effect. You will still have to eat less meat, either way.
I suppose the point I’m making is that not making difficult personal changes now because one person has such a small impact does not mean that we will never have to confront those choices. I love to travel, which often involves flying, and for as long as action against aviation continues to be minimal I can’t say I’ll be staying home in protest. But when, hopefully, the government comes out to tax frequent flyers, in a bid to reduce overall air miles, I’ll be the first in line to support that policy. Just because I continue to participate in some of these carbon-heavy activities doesn’t mean I would if there was a concerted effort to get huge swathes of the population to reduce or stop entirely for the sake of our species.
The second thing I think about is which products and choices will still, in my opinion, fit into a post-climate crisis world. I do try to cut down on my use of plastic, because I don’t think that disposable plastic items will survive the green transition. It seems worth finding alternatives now and adjusting to them, because I can’t see us still using plastic cutlery, bags, shampoo bottles and other single use items fifty years from now, presuming we have made some headway on preventing the apocalypse. Similarly, I have cut down my meat consumption significantly. Since I have lived independently, I have never been a huge meat-eater – especially due to cost, when I was a student – but now I think very carefully about when and where I eat meat, where it’s from and whether or not I think it’s worth it. Some people might scoff at those of us who reduce rather than cut out entirely, like it’s activism with training wheels, but I think it makes sense. I don’t think a post-climate crisis world will be a planet of ten billion perfect vegans. I do think any remotely more stable planet fifty years from now will involve a lot less meat and dairy consumption, hence why I am reducing. But even if we sort things out, some people will still eat cheese occasionally. There’s no need to martyr yourself for no reason.
Part of the reason making changes as an individual is appealing is because it is a signal. It tells the world that climate change matters to you, as evidenced by your willingness to give up things you love to stand in solidarity with the planet. But the thing with climate change activism is that it’s not necessarily about values for everyone. It can also be about pragmatism. Climate change should inspire everyone to reconsider the way the world works and the way we operate within those structures, out of concern for not just the animals and the reefs and the rainforests but also for ourselves. In lieu of making personal changes just to make a point, I focus on which habits I think are worth changing (and to what extent), and supporting widespread pro-climate action policies, even if they will impede my ability to do the very things I struggle to give up. That’s where I’m at. How do you place yourself and your choices in the context of our uncertain future?