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.