Is it better to invest your time and energy into individual or systemic actions when trying to address climate change?
It’s a deceptively simple question; one that I don’t (really) know the answer to. At least, not for you specifically.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question. I’ve also asked a lot of my colleagues in the climate space how they would answer. The most common answer was “erm…”
Other answers varied from “that depends on who your elected official is” to “Oh man. That’s a five-beer kind of question.”
What at first seems like a simple question actually has a ton of variables: What do you know? Who do you know? What resources do you have? What resources could you have? Are you in a position of power?
It’s a tough, multi-faceted question.
The thought experiment that emerges when you ask the question is about finding balance. At one extreme, if you dedicate all your time and energy to individual actions you will make some difference. It will be small and unlikely to inspire others to follow your lead. You limit your ability to inspire others and you limit your potential leverage over social change.
At the other extreme, however, dedicate all your time and energy into trying to create social change and you risk losing personal context for your actions. You may even be dismissed by others as a hypocrite. While that charge of hypocrisy is likely invalid, it is all too often effective in the court of public opinion.
So, the balance must be somewhere in the middle if you want the most effective outcome.
To start carving away at the question, we first need a solid definition that defines the difference between personal actions and systemic actions. We need to draw a line somewhere, and that’s not easy.
In preparing to write this, I tried to make a simple distinction between the two. Individual actions are primarily undertaken with yourself as the primary audience. Systemic actions are one’s taken to communicate and inspire others to action on climate change. In other words, actions that are non-viral versus those mean to spread.
For example: Taking the train instead of flying? Individual. Pushing for a price on carbon that would increase the cost of carbon intensive transit while spurring a climate-friendly economic transition? Systemic.
Going strawless? Individual. Working to overhaul waste regulations for your city that would limit the amount of packaging needing to be handled, shipped, and disposed of though carbon intensive processes? Systemic.
I quickly hit a problem with that distinction; it’s inadequate. Some actions can be both. Other times, the same action can be individual for one person but systemic for another.
For instance, if you’re the leader of a nation, your individual action of installing solar panels on the roof of your nation’s official residence may well inspire less powerful individuals to make a similar change. That’s ostensibly an individual action, but given your elevated profile it stands a good chance of becoming systemic anyway. Same with a well-known actor discussing the individual actions he is taking to fight climate change on a popular late night show.
It’s a blurry line between these two concepts. Take note, however, of the factors needed to blur that line. Having a higher than average amount of power, visibility, and influence in a given community increases the potential overlap between individual and systemic actions. It’s not a phenomenon restricted just to presidents and A-listers. Religious officials, community leaders, principals, parents; anyone who is looked up to has the power to blur the line.
So. Now that we’ve attempted to define the line that separates the individual action from the systemic, let’s pose a simple-sounding generalization: Individual actions have relatively small effects while systemic actions have potentially greater effects.
This again sounds reasonable enough. One person taking one action to reduce emissions, be it cutting their meat consumption or calling an elected official, makes some difference. But convincing ten other people to take the same action creates ten times the difference. An example one sets publicly can mobile large numbers of people to the same action. They, in turn, can mobilize even more.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that if you’re in a position with both power and a high carbon footprint, you might be able to upend this rule of thumb. The differences in any given person’s power and visibility are the reason that you can’t cleanly answer any of these questions. It’s difficult to make comparisons between individuals when the amount of power and resources we each hold varies considerably.
One relevant piece of information to keep in mind is the tact of the major fossil fuel companies themselves in answering this question. There has been an observed effort from major fossil fuel companies to emphasize the importance of individual climate change action. The fossil fuel industry has been hard at work pushing people to ‘be responsible’ and fight the climate crisis entirely on their own. Never mind the fact that more than a century of lobbying has ensured that fossil powered personal vehicles are the only way for many to get to work. Ignore the billions that fossil majors have spent on ensuring tax subsidies remain in place that artificially boost profits. It’s definitely your fault that the climate crisis has gotten this bad. Why did you drive so much?
Sarcasm aside, individual action still isn’t worthless. It’s not, broadly speaking, necessary for people imbedded in a failing system inextricably linked to a fossil fuels to try and address systemic issues with LED bulbs and electric cars. But there is still value in acting to reduce one’s own carbon emissions.
Doing so makes you understand and critically analyze our economic systems. It encourages a sophisticated understanding of the problem and how it might be solved. The more you learn about the emissions of individual actions, you more you are able to understand what systemic actions make the largest impact. Why might a wine from France have lower emissions for a New York consumer than one from California, for example? Once you understand the currents of the issue, you are better positioned to push for the kinds of systemic changes that make big differences.
Ultimately, the answer to the original question of where to spend your climate change effort is that it depends quite a bit on your circumstance. It’s always worth keeping a foot in the individual action space to both remind and educate yourself about the systems at play. But, generally speaking, your time investment is more effective when combined with others; everyone pushing in the same direction to overcome systemic aversion to change. While you’re on your own to figure out the best balance for you, my personal goal is to spend 80% of my effort on systemic actions and 20% on my own personal impacts. Yours will likely be different.
Whatever you choose, we need you. Being involved in the climate change battle at all is effective. No matter how you choose to fight, from getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience right down to just talking about climate change to those around you, we are lucky to have you fighting with us for a better world.
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