The environmental world often debates the role of individual action in the process of mitigating climate change. Some argue it’s incumbent on everyone to be an active part of the solution, cut back, do research, and change their consumption patterns. Others argue the mere mention of individual action is deflecting from the real problem of corporate emissions and government inaction. I see bits of good points in both of these arguments, but ultimately, neither is all that convincing for me. As usual, I think the true answer lies somewhere between the extremes.
As I see it, individual action is at its best if it is (1) easy or (2) has the potential to spur community-level change. That’s certainly not to say difficult personal choices can’t be meaningful. If you’re fully committed to making difficult sacrifices in the name of climate change and keeping it to yourself, then you have a lot more willpower than 99% of people, myself included. But as I see it, most people have a very finite amount of energy to put toward climate change, so by taking easy steps or steps that have the potential to inspire others, that energy can be optimized to achieve maximum impact.
1 Find low hanging fruit.
If you have reusable grocery bags, bring them to the store. If you’re not a big meat person, you can cut back on beef. If you’re not a fashionista, you can wear your clothes out before buying new ones. Don’t do something you don’t want to do because it’s like dieting, you won’t stick to it, but you can use the climate as extra motivation to do the good things you want to do. Low hanging fruit doesn't have to involve cutting back either. If you love meat, see if there’s eco-certified meat. If you love clothes shopping, you can thrift, or you can go to higher-quality stores and find items that will be in style longer and won’t fall apart after two runs through the laundry. These strategies can very easily and conveniently improve your climate impact, but also open your eyes to the ways you're already helping the climate without even knowing it! To me, individual solutions that also save you money are the best kind.
2 Do research.
If you have a gasoline-powered car with OK gas mileage, which do you think has the bigger climate impact: junking it for an electric car, or continuing to drive the gasoline-powered car until the end of its life? Due to the amount of resources that go into manufacturing a new car, the electric car would actually have the worse climate impact in that scenario.
Climate change is about nuance and critical thinking. Often, it's about resource efficiency. As more and more "eco-friendly" products hit the market, it becomes imperative for individuals to distinguish fun trends from genuine solutions. Hopefully, The Sweaty Penguin can help with that (if you want our take on the latest trend, send us a question, and we may even feature it on the podcast!).
3 Uplift others who do good things.
Not only do Americans love making fun of vegans, but a Johns Hopkins study revealed labelling a product "vegan" causes its sales to drop by 70%. I know, America, they started it. I had the prototypical vegan friend in high school who made sure everyone knew he was vegan, so I get it (although in that case, it was funny because he was talking about veganism to purposely annoy us). Obviously, you don't have to be vegan, and it's worth knowing that the climate impact of a vegan diet versus a vegetarian diet versus a Mediterranean diet with a little bit of chicken and fish is minimal. All I'm saying is it might be worth taking the vegan-bashing down about 20%. I'm sure many people on the cusp feel a lot of outside pressure to not become vegan, and given the benefit we all get by other people making that dietary choice, I see no reason why veganism should be discouraged. Again, I could never do it personally and I see nothing wrong with that, but uplifting others shouldn't be this difficult. I use veganism as the obvious example, but it can apply to any stigmatized habit that helps the climate—biking to work, forgoing the latest fashion trends to wear older, more durable clothing, etc.
4 Use your voice.
First off, you can vote, local, state, and federal. But more than that, what can you do? How can you advocate? A lot of people’s minds might jump to volunteering or attending a protest, and that’s one way, but it might not be for everyone. It wasn’t for me, I tried and didn’t like it. But I am a writer and a storyteller, I was going to college for Film and Television, so I figured out ways to use that skill set, not even as an advocate per se but as an informer for you all.
There’s other ways too. Maybe you work at a company and you can push for some sustainable business practices or even something as simple as organizing trash sorting in the kitchen. Maybe there’s an environmental issue in your town you can rally people around, or connect to a regional organization that can come in and help you make a difference. There’s no right answer here, but any way you can use your voice, small or large, is powerful.
5 Talk to someone you disagree with.
I know, a lot of people will disagree with me on this one, but hear me out. The last time the U.S. passed sweeping environmental legislation was in the 1970s under a Democratic Congress and Republican presidents Nixon and Ford. People were talking to each other, and they largely agreed on what the environmental problems were, even if they disagreed on solutions. So I’m not saying go argue with strangers on Facebook. The goal shouldn’t even be to argue at all. Listen to some of our past bonus episodes with Christian and Matt or Leo and Velina. They have very different political views, but we chat about the environment, there might be some disagreement, but we have fun and we learn together. If you can find a way to create a comfortable and constructive environment where your goal is not to convince but just to learn and have fun, that's fantastic. You can talk about anything, even sports or movies or books, it doesn’t have to be environmental.
I understand many view those politically opposed to them as fundamentally immoral, and that's fine. Obviously don't be friends with someone you hate or give a public platform to someone you disagree with. But I think that's very different from just listening, learning more about them, and seeing if you have something, anything, in common. It sounds terrible, I know, but seeing how essential bipartisanship was to our last batch of environmental policy, I really do feel like some baby steps back in that direction would be a huge help.