The Possibilities and Limits of Individual Climate Action

The Possibilities and Limits of Individual Climate Action
Commuter cyclists make their way through Kennington on Aug. 3, 2016 in London, England. (Photo: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images)

Here at Earther, I spend a lot of my time writing about the entities that are the most responsible for the climate crisis, like energy giants and other polluting companies. I know that these companies and their friends in government have spent decades promoting the false idea that we are all responsible for global warming.

And yet, I never leave the lights on when I leave the house. When I drive my car, I feel the occasional twinge of guilt. I was vegan for years, largely because of the horrendous greenhouse gas pollution from the meat industry.

I know that individual climate-focused choices aren’t harmful, but I sometimes wonder if they have any real utility. Sami Grover, an environmental writer at Treehugger, has spent a lot of time thinking that question through. In his new book, We Are All Climate Hypocrites Now, he attempts to answer it.

To do so, Grover interviewed climate activists, journalists, scientists, and scholars. He examined his own attempts to green his life and how access and oppression limit the individual actions people can take to reduce their carbon footprints. Individual action can indeed be useful as long as it’s seen as a means to create change, not an end in itself.

Earther chatted with Grover about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Dharna Noor, Earther: You write that the book started as a plan to debunk the importance of individual action. Did that pan out?

Sami Grover: I started the book to some degree because of my frustration with what I’ve been doing for 10-plus years, which is writing about what you can call “green living” at a time when that whole sort of eco-modernist, we’re-gonna-shop-our-way-out-of-this approach was very common. While a lot of what I was writing about was politics or activism, I did also find myself writing articles on all these little micro-interventions. It got very frustrating that that was the centre of the conversation.

And yet, as I dug in, what I realised is that even among folks who were very adamant that this is about systems and politics and whatever, most people I spoke to were doing something in their personal lives too, and vice versa. I didn’t speak to anyone who was going down the hardcore green vegan dumpster diving route who didn’t also believe that we absolutely need system-level interventions. So I think it ended up in a lot more nuanced place than I was expecting.

Earther: Right. And you write throughout the book about how you yourself have implemented individual climate-focused actions. You drive an electric car. You brewed biodiesel at home. Can you talk about why it is that you’ve made these changes in your own life?

Grover: A lot of it is because it’s interesting and fun! Except the biodiesel thing. That was a briefly lived experiment, and that that was less fun. But I think there’s a lot of joy to be had and sort of exploring a lot of those avenues.

There’s also something you learn about where the systems are going to stop you. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus talks about this a lot in the book. When you go hardcore down this route, you will find the places where it’s really not possible to make better choices. So there’s sort of an illustration angle to it.

But the other part that I’m increasingly thinking about is that there are problems with how we measure those actions. We measure in terms of the effect on our carbon footprints, individually. So the question becomes what’s the biggest thing I can do for my carbon footprint? And then, what’s the second biggest thing, what’s the third, the fourth? You end up in this rabbit hole, crawling around on your hands and knees and trying to caulk the baseboards to insulate your house and taking two-minute showers and all of this stuff. At some point, there’s a diminishing return on investment. What I’ve been getting to increasingly is that we should think about these actions less as efforts to reduce our own carbon footprints and more as acts of mass mobilisation.

So for instance, we can think more in terms of boycotts rather than behaviour change. That allows you a lens to focus your efforts as to where it’s actually going to make a difference. It also gives you an opportunity to cut yourself and others some slack, because those boycotts are only going to work if you can build up a mass movement. So it’s less about, “well, I flew twice last year, and it ruined my carbon footprint,” and more about, “where are the opportunities to hit the aviation industry and the fossil fuels that power it where it hurts?”

Earther: It reminds me of something from your conversation with energy analyst Ketan Joshi in the book. You write that, “behaviour change only matters when it can become a catalyst for societal level of change.” What’s the difference between a bunch of individual people making changes and an actual movement?

Grover: I think the answer is partially just in targeting those actions. For instance, you can look at efforts not to fly. I know a bunch of people who try not to fly, as much as they can. Take Flight Free in the UK. They’re focused on academia, and what they’re trying to do is take individual commitments, and then turn that into institutional commitments, and then turn that into organizational commitments.

It’s about looking outwards more. It’s less about what action you take, and more about thinking about what units of measurement to use, because that changes how you go about what you’re doing.

Earther: You focus quite a bit in the book about the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to encourage all of us to look inward when thinking about how to take on the climate crisis. You write that it’s really important for us to be careful that our individual actions and our lens of individualism do not “inadvertently provide corporate polluters with an assist” in that mission. How do we avoid playing into their hands?

Grover: There’s this tension where people who are going down the green living route feel like they’re being dismissed by the folks who are saying it’s the systems that are the problem, and the folks who are saying it’s the system just feel judged by the people who are going down the green living route.

We need to get to the space where we say, “yes, there is a version of the argument that we ought to take personal responsibility, that absolutely helps the fossil fuel industry,” because it puts all the responsibility on us. But two things can be true at once. Just because the fossil fuel industry wants me to focus only on my diet and my car choice and whether I bike to work doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t make conscious choices in that area. It just means I shouldn’t stop there. And also, it shouldn’t allow me to distract from the bigger question of holding polluters to account.

Simply starting from a place where it’s less about, “it’s all our fault,” and more about, “where are my opportunities to make things better,” is helpful. Because then, we can act but we still know who the real villains are. And it also empowers us to say, “hey, I don’t have to completely give up fossil fuels in my personal life in order to make a difference.”

I think the example in the book about the slavery abolitionist movement and sugar boycotts is a really useful one because I’m pretty sure folks that took part in those sugar boycotts were not able to give up all goods grown by enslaved people; weren’t able to free themselves from the system of slavery entirely. Instead, they were able to find one place where they could make some economic impacts, but more importantly, to galvanize a movement.

We can acknowledge that we have places of power in almost every part of our lives where we can shift the system into a better place, that’s more receptive to systemic change. And maybe we can help do that through our shopping habits, or by changing how we move about. But we can’t let that be the central part of the conversation around climate change. They can’t be the end goal.