For those who pride themselves on diligently recycling and taking shorter showers, this idea may seem jarring: Individual action will do little — if anything, really — to mitigate the climate crisis.
If you’re confused, it’s not at all surprising. The vast majority of environmental campaigns in this country focus on small behavioral changes we can make to reduce our carbon footprint. Indeed, stickers on paper towel dispensers reminding us that “these come from trees” abound; exhortations to refrain from eating meat pervade the dining halls every Monday. While well-meaning, these efforts distract us from taking the steps truly necessary to stave off the worst effects of global warming.
Climate change is not an individual problem — it’s a symptom of an economic system that fails to internalize the costs associated with environmental degradation. People modifying their consumption at the micro level do not change the structure of our economy. For as long as fossil fuel titans can cheaply extract and combust coal, oil and natural gas, the planet will continue to inch closer to the brink of catastrophic climate change.
Worse still, the campaigns that encourage us to diminish our individual impact on the earth actually propagate the environmental abusers: multinational corporations. By focusing so heavily on the actions that we as consumers can take, we exonerate companies like ExxonMobil and British Petroleum from their role in causing this crisis in the first place. Understanding this, fossil fuel companies have insidiously caused Americans to think as though the responsibility to address global warming lies with them in order to protect their business model and profits.
Other industries employ this tactic as well. Poland Spring, a subsidiary of Nestlé, touts that it produces its water bottles with 30 percent less plastic than in the past and encourages its buyers to recycle its products after use. Doing so supports the paradigm that the responsibility to protect the environment lies with consumers. The alternative point of view, and one we must embrace, posits that we have to cease purchasing water bottles in the first place — something Nestlé could not accept.
So if carpooling and switching to a vegetarian diet won’t meaningfully alter the trajectory of our greenhouse gas emissions, what can we do to ensure a livable future for all? Each of us needs to actively engage in the political process by voting for candidates pledging to fundamentally restructure our economy, by coordinating boycotts of environmentally damaging products, by participating in protests and marches demanding that large institutions divest from fossil fuel companies and by donating to environmental campaigns that apply pressure to elected officials. We must not allow the societal actors truly damning us to a planet ravaged by droughts and rising seas to continue their ecological destruction unabated.