Mitigating Climate Disaster Will Require Both Systemic and Lifestyle Changes

Activists display signs in the People's Climate March in Vancouver, British Columbia, on September 21, 2014. (Photo: Chris Yakimov)Activists display signs in the People’s Climate March in Vancouver, British Columbia, on September 21, 2014. (Photo: Chris Yakimov)

During the negotiations over the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015, Sunita Narain, an environmental activist from India, argued for a focus on the ties between global inequality and consumption by the relatively wealthy. “An inconvenient truth is that we do not want to talk about consumption or lifestyle,” she asserted.

It may be difficult to recall following Donald Trump’s inauguration, but it was little more than a year ago when delegates representing the world’s governments approved the United Nations accord. They pledged to prevent a temperature increase “well below” two degrees Celsius, and to strive to limit it to 1.5 degrees, over the average global temperature before the Industrial Revolution.

If there was hope that the United States would take the steps needed to meet its commitments through decisive action by the federal government, it is now diluted markedly.

It’s not that the Obama administration was leading the United States on a sufficiently low-carbon path. But at least it accepted the scientific consensus that fossil fuel consumption is warming the planet and destabilizing the climate; and the need for far-reaching reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Nonetheless, Obama’s White House embodied climate denialism of a different sort than those who characterize climate change as a “hoax.” It embraced an “all-of-the-above” energy policy allowing for fracking and offshore oil drilling, as well as corporate capitalism and endless growth. It also oversaw an obscenely bloated US military — the world’s biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels. The administration thus helped perpetuate reliance on carbon energy, high consumption levels, and, hence, an unsustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions.

This exemplifies a “soft denialism” shared by many associated with the broad left and the climate movement in the United States and the West: a failure to scrutinize lifestyle and everyday consumption. In this sense, one of the most striking things about the administration’s climate policy was that it asked nothing of individuals or households regarding how we live. It made it seem like our salvation lies solely in large-scale transformations achieved by new technologies and “clean energy.”

Many downplay the need for personal changes, characterizing them as empty, self-satisfying symbolism or a diversion from big-picture transformations — ranging from new government regulations to, for the more radical, a dismantling of capitalism. Writer Dave Roberts, for example, in defending actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio from charges of hypocrisy due to his lavish lifestyle, argues that “no single human can directly generate enough emissions to make a dent” given the enormity of global emissions. Policy change, Roberts says, needs to be the focus. And author Tim Wise, responding to those who think that individuals should forego flying because of its large carbon footprint, insists that, unless a boycott “were going to reasonably include millions,” it would be “less than meaningless” and “self-righteous, self-referential, ascetic bullshit.”

Collective action and individual action are necessarily linked in the effort to make structural change.

No doubt that a focus on individual practices and lifestyle sometimes is self-indulgent, and undermines, and obscures the need for, large-scale transformations. But this result is hardly inevitable. Indeed, collective action and individual action are necessarily linked in the effort to make structural change. Like any project of far-reaching change, the effort to radically cut carbon dioxide emissions, and environmental degradation broadly, is a multi-front endeavor. Thus, if the world is to avoid dangerous levels of climate disruption, dramatic cuts in individual consumption — particularly by the tenth of the world’s population responsible for half of global CO2 emissions — must be part of the equation.

Environmental Injustice

A strength of the environmental movement, or one of its wings, is its focus on environmental injustice, how the distribution of environmental detriments — air pollution, for example — is tied to race and class. Environmental justice advocates show that there are many “natures,” that not all air is created equal, that some better enjoy the right to breathe than others because of where they were born, live and work, and that such inequities are tied to systemic injustices.

These inequities illuminate who is most likely to be among the estimated 200,000 people in the United States, and about 2.6 million people worldwide (a 2012 figure), who die prematurely annually due to outdoor air pollution. Most vulnerable are those at society’s margins. A key reason is the location of high polluting sources — heavily trafficked roads, factories, power plants, airports, truck terminals — in relation to where they reside.

Many in the climate movement embrace environmental justice concerns, as do many who fight for social and economic justice. Yet, the little attention that everyday and individual consumption receives illustrates that the implications of the environmental justice analysis have not been taken far enough.

If the environment and social (in)justice are tightly tied, it is especially true with consumption. The United States, for example, uses more energy for air conditioning than the entire continent of Africa (with more than 1 billion people) uses for all purposes combined.

Or take flying. While many in the world’s wealthy parts hop on planes numerous times a year, it is an elite activity: The vast majority of the world’s population has never flown. It is also the most ecologically costly activity one can undertake. A round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco, for example, generates two to three tons of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger. This is roughly the amount of the annual emissions of an average Brazilian.

In a world of great disparities, nature’s exploitation is always tied to power and the making of the world’s social fabric. This is particularly so regarding the allocation of benefits and detriments of environmental resource consumption. Hence, nature embodies the ugly “-isms” associated with class, race and gender (among others) that inform the uneven life-and-death circumstances people experience globally.

Just as, say, patriarchy helps explain why men generally have more wealth and income than women, nature’s organization and its use illuminate how a small slice of the world’s population is able to devour most of the planet’s resources. It also illuminates why those who suffer most from climate change’s ill effects tend to be the already vulnerable. Accordingly, the ability to consume a lot derives from and helps (re)produce ecological injustice.

The Individual-Collective Connection

To ignore or downplay what one does vis-à-vis a system of sorts that brings about benefits and injury in a highly unequal manner, is to posit a simple (and non-existent) divide between individuals and the collective. Imagine someone responding to criticism of his racist behavior by labeling the hoped-for anti-racist practices as “self-righteous, self-referential, ascetic bullshit.”

Meanwhile, he argues that a focus on his actions is foolhardy and that he, as a true anti-racist, dedicates his energies to fighting structural racism. Few, if any, would “buy” such a stance. That many do so regarding environmental matters reflects how they imagine nature: as outside of social power and not involving dynamic ties between structures and individual agency.

This illustrates how critics of a focus on personal consumption perceive it as purely individual, and the individual as isolated. Take radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen. He contends that calls for personal cuts in consumption mistakenly blame individuals (especially those on the political-economic margins) rather than “those who actually wield power in this system and … the system itself.” To support this, Jensen asserts that, in terms of water, individuals and municipalities are responsible for only 10 percent of consumption, with agriculture and industry ingesting what remains. Similarly, households and individuals use about 25 percent of US energy, he reports. The rest belongs to the military, agribusiness, corporations and other institutional actors.

Jensen’s sharp boundary between individual and corporate consumption provokes many questions: For whom do agricultural and corporate interests produce the resource-intensive stuff they sell? Doesn’t consumer demand inform what (and how much) they produce? And doesn’t this help explain why hundreds of billions of dollars are spent globally each year on advertising to shape people’s desires and to produce “needs”? Does this not reflect corporate entities’ appreciation that their well-being is dependent upon choices individuals make, and thus their great effort to influence them? Although the sum of actions of individuals matter much more than that of one person, that sum is built upon individual practices, and vice-versa.

This reflects how our actions influence others, how “walking the talk” lends weight to our politics. For instance, research finds that the general public gives greater credibility to climate scientists calling for large emissions reductions when their behavior is consistent with the advocacy. Conversely, the public is less likely to take seriously champions of climate-change-necessitated cuts in consumption who consume a lot.

Hence, it is not enough to assert, as Naomi Klein has done in defending her flying footprint that, “We all work within the systems that we want to change.” Nor is it sufficient to argue, as has Bill McKibben in protesting climate change denialists who stalk people like himself to catch them driving a fossil-fueled car or committing other environmental sins, that, “Changing the system, not perfecting our own lives, is the point.”

The world does limit us. Moreover, we will always get dirty hands if we live in a society dominated by industrial capitalism and powered by fossil fuels. But invoking systemic limitations or the strawman of perfection to effectively say, “This is the best I can do” — particularly by individuals who are wealthy (in the global sense) and consume a lot — is to downplay human agency. It is to pretend that we have little room for maneuver, and to dismiss individuals’ need to think hard about their practices — as long as one is engaged in the fight that seeks systemic change.

As anyone who has spent time listening to middle- and upper-class people discussing their recent electronic gadget purchase, their latest “home improvement” project, their drive to get a cup of coffee, or an upcoming long-distance trip knows, high-consumers have a lot of room to rein themselves in.

In the recently released National Geographic climate change film, Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio interviews Sunita Narain. Narain references that DiCaprio is from the United States and says, “Your consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet. And that’s the conversation that we need to have.”

DiCaprio responds, “You’re absolutely correct,” but then says that such an argument is difficult for US Americans to hear, and that changes in their lifestyles are “probably not going to happen.” The solving of the climate crisis will occur, he says, because “renewables will become cheaper the more we invest into them, and that will solve the problem,” leading Narain to shake her head in dismay.

If “this changes everything” — this being climate change, as Naomi Klein suggests in the title of her book — this necessarily includes what individuals do — not least for reasons of environmental equity.

Meeting the Challenge of Now

To meet the temperature obligations of the Paris Accords, the world’s wealthy parts need to achieve zero net emissions in the next two decades. It’s ludicrous to think that technology and infrastructural and systemic changes alone will meet this enormous challenge, not least because some of the technologies do not exist and large-scale transformation typically takes a lot of time. Given Paris’s obligations — in addition to cuts in consumption needed in light of other ecological challenges — there simply isn’t room for some to maintain high-consumption lifestyles. And given the Paris Agreement’s commitment to undertake emissions cuts so as to “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities” and in support of efforts “to eradicate poverty,” the top global consumers must radically cut their consumption immediately to allow the poorest of the Earth’s denizens to increase theirs.

If the world’s top 10 percent of carbon dioxide emitters were to cut their emissions to the level of the average European Union citizen, global emissions would decline by 33 percent.

According to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, if the world’s top 10 percent of carbon dioxide emitters were to cut their emissions to the level of the average European Union citizen, global emissions would decline by 33 percent. If the top 20 percent were to do so, the reduction would be about 40 percent. (Here’s one small example of what can be done: drying laundry by evaporation on clotheslines and racks — like the vast majority of Italy’s people do, for instance — instead of by fossil-fueled dryer would reduce a typical US household’s CO2 emissions by about one ton annually.)

For people who, like me, fit into the top 20 percent, it means giving up things, especially our ecological privilege — the ability to devour a disproportionate share of the Earth’s resources and dump the associated detriments on others. It means reducing our wants, slowing down, consuming much less, and sharing and supporting one another, while pushing each other to do so. Among other benefits, jumping off the capitalism-fueled consumption bandwagon may allow us space and time to explore and develop alternative ways of living.

It is imperative that high-profile organizations and figures in the climate, environmental justice, and anti-racism and economic justice movements lead the way. Imagine, for example, if they were to advocate deep cuts in individual consumption to fight air and water pollution in addition to climate change. Imagine also that they were to call for limiting travel to modes that stick to the Earth’s surface when going to demonstrations or meetings, or to give lectures, and to model that behavior. And then imagine they were to explain to their constituencies and audiences why they make such choices, how they are tied to struggles for larger transformation, and to urge them to follow suit. Were this to happen, what may at first seem to be individual, “less than meaningless” and “bullshit” would likely take on a very different character.

This is not to suggest that changes by individual high consumers will be sufficient — far from it. But such changes, in addition to helping others to see possibilities for a more sustainable lifestyle, can help catalyze larger transformations. Nor is it to say that it is unnecessary to confront large institutions and processes that drive much ecological destruction and their associated injustices, as well as to work to remedy technologies and infrastructures that limit our ability to live lightly. Indeed, such endeavors are vital. One reason is that structural changes can greatly increase the possibilities for changes in individual consumption.

This manifests how we do not confront an either-or choice. It is a matter of acting individually and collectively, as well as focusing on the everyday and structural to bring about democratic, just and sustainable ways of relating between peoples and places and novel institutional arrangements. To assume that broad, deep transformation emanates simply from changes at “the top” can only lead to an impoverished politics.

Far-reaching change requires sustained work on multiple fronts, and a lot of it. And that work — the bridge-building and making of dynamic ties between different scales and spheres — is what our focus needs to be, not a downplaying of the value of, or outright rejection of, individual actions in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

It is a task, following the globe’s warmest year on record, that the Trump era only makes more necessary.