Do Individual Actions Matter?

planet earth

You’ve no doubt read the argument or have seen the meme: Individual actions don’t matter.

Of course, in our attempts to mitigate our ecological crises, policy change would move the needle much faster than individual changes—and we don’t have a lot of time. An end to oil subsidies, for example, would speed up the demise of the fossil fuel industry much faster than, say, some of us either choosing not to fly or buying electric cars—or both. Similarly, universal plastic bag bans—real bag bans without loopholes that allow for thicker plastic bags that last a bit longer—would result in everyone dutifully bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the store, and not only the shoppers who have watched Blue Planet II. We desperately need policy change.

However, individual actions can create a ripple effect that can lead to a larger impact. In 2011, my daughter MK and I decided to go plastic-free. While I had no idea where to start, MK did some research and found Beth Terry’s fabulous blog, My Plastic-Free Life, like gazillions of other people wanting to kick plastic. Following Terry’s example, we implemented changes in our home. Soon afterward, MK started her blog. A few years later, I started mine. Both online and off, people have told MK and me that they made changes after reading our blogs, or have started writing their own blogs, or opened zero-waste bulk stores or were spurred to other kinds of community activism. That’s a lot of ripples in one short paragraph. Those ripples can become tsunamis. And those tsunamis can bring about sweeping positive change.

Individual actions also reap personal benefits: Eating fewer highly processed foods—foods that also tend to be highly packaged—and more whole foods improves health. Eating all the food we buy saves money—and time. And reducing our support of big business makes us rebels.

But we can’t rely on individual actions only

Fossil fuel interests do their best to shift the blame for the climate crisis onto us, the consumers. BP, for example, launched its carbon footprint calculator as a means to deflect responsibility. If only we, the public, would change our lifestyles, all would be well—and BP and its ilk would be able to carry on business as usual.

The bottling industry, fast food and junk food companies push their own deflection campaign by urging us to recycle more. Globally, Coca-Cola produces 3 million tons of plastic packaging every year, the equivalent of 200,000 plastic bottles per minute. We simply cannot recycle our way through these dizzying amounts of petrochemical-derived garbage. Coca-Cola could revert back to return and refill schemes of old but why would it implement expensive programs when it can currently pollute for free?

Individual actions and system change are not mutually exclusive

Please keep in mind that fossil fuel interests—oil and gas companies, their sham “think tanks” and their bought politicians rub their hands with glee when climate activists duke it out over the individual-versus-collective-action debate. Infighting diminishes our voice and hands a win to these fossil fuel interests.

And we don’t have to choose one or the other. We can walk and chew plastic-free gum at the same time. If you join the climate fight by joining organizations such as 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Earth Justice, Plastic Pollution Coalition and so on—and doing so is one of the best things you can do as an individual—you won’t likely begin to shop with as many plastic bags as possible, quadruple your beef intake and aspire to join a 1,000,000 air mile club.

We can implement individual changes and work on system change simultaneously. We can do both. We need both. It’s not either or. It’s and also.


7 Replies to “Do Individual Actions Matter?”

  1. Nice article. We do, indeed, need both the individual small steps, and the much larger industrial and legislative steps to work this all out.

  2. Jessica Martinkosky says: Reply

    The community college system in my state just banned single-use plastic and I was floored and delighted!!! It’s going to be a phase-out and I don’t know what made them decide, but it’s so exciting!!
    One of my friends and I were talking about how, soon, everyone will have to be like us, bringing their own plates and utensils to campus meal events (assuming we ever have those again…)!

  3. When we were first given recycling bins (a while ago now!), we were just about the only person on our street to use them. Our neighbours gradually started recycling too. It took a change in policy (smaller rubbish bins!) to convert the last few non-recyclers, but eventually everyone recycled. Corporate interests are never going to lead the way, it’s always going to take the individual efforts of a few enlightened folk to get things moving so that they have to follow.

  4. Individual actions do indeed matter- for our own individual health and well-being and that of the world at large. It is infuriating though, when it seems that legislation is just so slow in coming to the party to address critical issues, and individual actions end up having to make up the shortfalls.

    1. I completely agree, Amanda. It is infuriating. We need legislative action on climate immediately.
      ~ Anne-Marie

  5. That is a great idea. I watched a documentary about plastic bottles eventually made their way to ocean and affecting the eco-system. Since then, I pick up bottles on the street. Hope small things count.

  6. Individual actions espy matter if you are a high income individual or a decision maker in a company. We are social creatures and we tend to imitate one another. Opting out of consumerism helps us think of wealth beyond what’s defined by GDP. Political revolutions are sustained by cultural revolutions and vice versa. Neither can exist by themselves in the long run.

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