The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) is underway this week in Dubai, amid urgent pressure for world leaders to strike a crucial consensus on a strong climate policy commitment.
It’s a nail-biting experience for climate activists as 2030 draws near, a critical goal post when emissions must be halved to have a real chance of averting catastrophic ecological tipping points that could lead to abrupt climate systems collapse. In these moments, I struggle, like many others, to reconcile the importance of individual action with its limitations in the face of political inertia. What’s the point of recycling or buying an electric vehicle if our world leaders can’t strike up a functional climate plan?
The emphasis on individual climate action over systemic change has a complex past. Terms like “carbon footprint” — a measurement of individual carbon emissions per person — were created by the fossil fuel industry. In the early 2000s, during a deplorable climate disinformation campaign led by the George W. Bush administration and Big Oil companies, the term was used as a way of displacing responsibility.
Instead of focusing on the systemic problems of fossil fuel extraction and our government’s refusal to create the systems we need for a sustainable future, the logic of individualism instead places blame on everyday people. This continues to serve as a distraction, as people become more and more preoccupied with their individual emissions as the end-all, be-all of climate action.
This overemphasis on individualistic action limits the climate movement and depoliticizes its aim by obscuring greater systemic causes. It’s important to note that carbon emission rates are not distributed equally and are linked to socioeconomic status. Citizens of lower-income countries produce a comparatively minute amount of carbon emission per capita. Poor people in high-income countries also produce relatively fewer emissions compared to their wealthier counterparts. For example, the richest 1 percent of the global population produced 16 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide in 2019, generating as many emissions as the poorest two-thirds of humanity. This is because people who have less are much more likely to use less and rely on sustainable practices to make ends meet. The majority of people in the world aren’t overconsuming resources at the same rate as middle- to upper-class people in the Global North. The focus on carbon footprints isn’t even relevant for most people on the planet.
This makes it difficult to leverage an individualistic approach to climate action as an international and inter-class movement. For low-income communities, emphasizing buying an electric vehicle and using pricey “sustainable brands” often comes off as elitist, patronizing and out of touch. For me, growing up in a Black, low-income immigrant community in Florida, this individualistic approach is frustrating. It’s hard to connect with the message of wealthier and white climate activists who preach flying less, when, by the age of 17, I had only ever taken three flights — one that brought me to the U.S. from Haiti, where I was born and the other to return for a funeral. Practices like thrifting clothes and repairing items are more than just a sustainability trend — they are the strategies that low-income communities like mine in Florida have always used to survive from paycheck to paycheck.
Individualistic conceptions of climate action are also susceptible to co-optation to further consumerist habits. “Greenwashing” marketing campaigns are used by corporations that adopt the language of sustainability to serve their bottom line. For example, companies like BP, H&M, Zara, Volkswagen and Exxon make empty climate promises or create misleading “sustainable” products.
Individualistic approaches can also hurt sustainable products by overemphasizing the need to buy “more” instead of first reusing what we already have. This is the Jevon paradox, where an increase in efficiency and sustainability of a product can lead to overuse if there’s not a concerted effort to reduce consumption. As people become obsessed with their emissions and finding the miracle products to lower them, we tend to forget the bigger picture: There is no buying our way out of the climate crisis. Instead, we live in systems, especially in North America, that make it difficult to live more sustainable lives, whether through a lack of public transportation, limited renewable energy power grids or economic subsidies that encourage the expansion of fossil fuel-dependent industries.
But it’s also not as simple as throwing up our hands and arguing that since the climate crisis isn’t our fault, there is nothing that we, as individuals, can do about it. This perspective can feed into climate “doomerism” narratives and dismiss the power of collective action.
Individual actions like transitioning to a more plant-based diet, limiting consumption and buying sustainable alternatives are still worthwhile. Buying less and more consciously sends important messages to the supply chain. Yes, some corporations will take this as an opportunity to greenwash, but others may be encouraged to invest in, research and develop more climate-conscious alternatives.
Lifestyle changes can also demonstrate that there are viable and joyful alternatives sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel-intensive living. For example, Eco-villages that scale up individual action into smaller experimental community units also feed into exciting visions of a sustainable world. They can act as models for sustainable alternatives, inspirations for initiatives and policies, and laboratories for innovations. Though these budding eco-villages are exciting they don’t eclipse the need for larger-scale action.
Building new habits also helps engage everyday people in learning and caring about their local ecologies. It opens the window for further exploration and is an important avenue for politicizing sustainability into collective political power. Still, it’s important to not get bogged down by the need to live perfectly sustainable lives before one gets involved in much-needed climate advocacy.
It’s not just that individuals are making unsustainable choices, but that our options are purposefully limited by our power structures. Our societies lack the infrastructure and political will to enable people to live dignified and sustainable lives. But as people demand more opportunities to live sustainably through political action shaped in part by changes in consumption habits, we can start to see change.
Today it’s recycling; tomorrow it’s composting; the day after that, it’s demanding that your city council expand recycling and composting infrastructure and increase public transportation; the week after that, it’s participating in protests, keeping elected officials accountable to their climate promises, working with local authorities to create climate-adaptive infrastructure and educating one’s community. Individual actions are not the end-all, be-all of climate action, but they can be pursued in conjunction with building crucial collective action to demand greater change.
Individual climate action is important, but as COP28 negotiations continue, we are reminded of the importance of genuine political action. Now more than ever we need to hold politicians accountable. Individual climate action is a vital stepping stone for educating and engaging people on climate change. However, letting individual emissions overshadow the need to address climate change on a systemic level can obscure the need for larger-scale change. Thankfully, we are more than equipped to walk and chew gum.
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