Individual Action and Climate Change

The past month, I’ve been at a few conferences/talks and a podcast where the topic of individual action in response to climate change has come up. In the moment, I feel like I never satisfactorily say what I mean to say in those moments, so I wanted to try writing it out. Three big points are immediately brought up when individual action is suggested.

  1. First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that there is no individual action or choice that will “solve” or “end” the climate crisis. Everyone going vegan or recycling or living in apartments or whatever will not “stop” climate change. There is no single solution–or, indeed, a solution. At this point, the climate crisis will continue even if carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage came to a dead halt. We are in it, now.
  2. It also must be acknowledged that there’s a reason that certain groups are invested in an average person believing they can “fix” the problems leading to climate change. By placing the blame on the 99%, large corporations that are responsible for the majority of emissions can avoid consumers demanding change. The corporations can just blame us, instead, with cute, greenwashed ads that show people bringing canvas bags to the grocery store or using metal straws. This idea helps corporations dodge accountability.
  3. Individual actions meant to help lower a person’s carbon footprint are often based in privilege. It’s expensive to go vegan or install solar panels. Living off grid is not physically possible for plenty of people. Class is an issue–whether it’s buying more sustainable (and often more expensive) products, to finding the time to do that kind of research. There are so many barriers as part of the capitalist system that is running us all into the ground.

For these reasons, I try to shift my thinking and the way I discuss individual action not toward “fixing” anything or reducing my carbon footprint. In my mind, that falls too much into the narrative corporations have handed down. Framing action around carbon footprint or fossil fuels also narrows the focus of these actions. Going to a BLM protest is an environmental action–even if you expand your carbon footprint by driving there, handing out plastic water bottles, buying disposable medical supplies, buying poster-board for signs, etc. So, I prefer to disregard the idea of individual action as a way to reduce climate harm but rather phrase it as–how can I help my human and nonhuman community with the skills I have?

So, in my thinking, individual action is not applied to climate change but rather to community. Strengthening our communities is probably the single greatest way any single individual can prepare for the climate crisis.

For me, “prepare” is a key word in this conversation. A decade a go, it felt like the conversation around climate change was revolving around individual action as a way to lessen the impacts–as if we weren’t already experiencing the impacts. In the US, it’s even clearer that climate change is hear, now, whether it’s the drought or floods, excessive heat or excessive snow–and everything in between. This isn’t going away, so, those who can and have the desire to do something can prepare.

For me, personally, preparation looks like a few different things. My husband and I have returned to our home community, a decision brought on by jobs but also by our desire to return home, as Wendell Berry suggests as a possible response to climate change, and also to be in a terrain where we know how to find food and water. Preparation also looks like learning the names of trees, then, hopefully flowers, herbs, and other plants. Preparation is putting in a garden and drying herbs and going hunting in the fall. It’s trying to figure out my connection to the living world. It’s doing a lot of thinking–how do I approach publishing sustainably? It’s making large goals–solar panels, an electric car–that could be repurposed for community use. It’s getting to know our neighbors as safely as possible during a pandemic, in a deeply divided county.

Any time the question of individual action is broached, it must, must, must be freed from guilt. The capitalist system wants us to feel guilty for a situation so many of us have pushed back against. Individual action should never be leveled at someone to doubt their commitment to a cause, to the living world, to their community.

For those who want to do something, who have that energy–see to it in your community, in your personal relationships, in how you thinking and talk and act in terms of the living world. But we must not fall into the trap of blaming others for not trying hard or into the trap of believing we are more environmentally ethical for not using paper plates. Do what aids your community–human and nonhuman. Do what resists capitalism. Make art, learn carpentry, first aid, take swimming lessons, learn to kayak, read a compass, identify birds. Know your local paths, learn the pattern of the trees. Prepare. Uplift others. Grow Community.

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