When I was twelve years old, one of the first books that turned me into an environmentalist was 50 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Like many others in this genre, the book was packed with tips on changes you can make to your life to reduce your environmental impact. I became a recycling fanatic who went through my parent’s trash to rescue the recyclables. I put bottles into our toilets and made my family members check off a chart every time they flushed. I brought my own bags to the grocery store. These things became second nature to me and it became my mission to help others do their part to help the environment.
A lot has happened since then. I earned three degrees from three institutions of higher education. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased from 350ppm to 400ppm. The United States refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Convention on Climate Change at Copenhagen resulted in no binding commitments. I am now convinced that convincing people to take shorter showers and turn down their thermostats is not where we should focus our energy if we want to reverse climate change. The first reason is that such efforts have little impact and breed complacency in thinking we have done our part. The second reason is that focusing our energy on collective actions towards systemic solutions is far more effective in creating the changes we need.
When we look at the sources of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, individual (residential) consumption is the smallest compared to other sectors. In the United States, residential is the smallest source of emissions compared to electricity generation, transportation, and agriculture. At the global level, residential emissions (buildings) are even smaller, comprising less than 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
You can argue that households consume electricity, so a portion of emissions from electricity should be attributed to households. But, since all other sectors also use electricity, the portion used by households is still small. The chart below shows sources of energy and their uses in the United States. Of all the energy generated, transportation uses the most, consuming 27%. The next biggest category is electricity generation, transmission and distribution losses. At 25% this massive amount of energy does not get used at all, but is lost on its way to houses and factories. The industrial, commercial, and residential sectors use 24%, 8% and 12% respectively. In the end, 42.8% of the energy is used while 55% is lost. Looked at this way, if every single person in the United States reduced their household energy use by 25%, we would reduce total energy use by about 2.5%.
Flow chart prepared by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of California, and the U.S. Department of Energy.
When it comes to water consumption, the difference between residential use and everything else is even starker. In the United States, 70% of water is used for agriculture , 22% for industry, and only 8% residential. So even if we all installed low-flush toilets and skipped showers the amount of water we can reduce is minimal compared to changes in other sectors.
Transportation, as was noted earlier, is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States, and light-duty vehicles, which are mostly driven by individuals, constitute 61% of all fuel use. Here is an instance where individual behavior change on a mass scale could make a difference. But it is also one of the behaviors most constrained by factors beyond our control. As much we would all like to spend less money on gas, most Americans simply cannot get around driving less than they do. The average American commutes 25 minutes to work each day, and 76% of those drive alone.[i] Lack of public transit is the biggest challenge, as well as sprawling development, and the segregation of residential zones from commercial/industrial zones. Choosing more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative fuel vehicles help, but that does not reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and the environmental impact of gutting open spaces to create roads and infrastructure for cars. Making changes to planning, public transit, and zoning would have far more impact in reduce the carbon impact of transportation.
This brings us to the bigger reason of why focusing on individual behavior is not an effective strategy. While behavior change can have a small impact, systems solutions can do so far more effectively on a large scale. Consider some of the following comparisons:
- If you shorten your shower by 1 minute every day for a year, you would save 912 gallons of water.[ii] Not bad. However, fracking, a process by which natural gas is extracted from shale rock, uses an average of 5 million gallons of water for each well. This means you would have to shorten your shower every day for 5,482 years to save the same amount of water used to frack a single well. In 2012, fracking created 280 billion gallons of wastewater in the US alone.[iii] The average person uses 90 gallons of water per day. The population of the US is 318 million. That means almost as much water was used for fracking as was used by the whole country to take showers, flush toilets, cook food, water lawns, and clean clothes.
- If you replace 10 regular lightbulbs in your home with CFLs, you would avoid 1,500 pounds (0.68 tons) of carbon dioxide in a year.[iv] Since changing lightbulbs is easy to do and it saves you money, it makes complete sense. However, electric power plants in the United States emit 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. [v] A national mandate to replace 10 percent of that generation with wind or solar energy would reduce emissions by 220 million tons a year.
- If you have a 20-mile round trip commute each day and you upgraded your car from one that gets 20 mpg to one that gets 30 mpg, you would save 1,666 lbs of CO2 a year.[vi] However, if you took that commute by public transit, you would reduce your emissions by more than 4,800 pounds a year.[vii] Remember that the bus carries other people too, so if your bus replaced the commutes of 20 people in single occupancy vehicles, then together you would have avoided 96,000 pounds (44 tons) of CO2. That’s 58 times more CO2 avoided than upgrading your own car.
- If you eat vegetarian 100% of the time, you would save at least 3,000 pounds of CO2 per year compared to meat eaters.[viii] That’s a pretty big impact; probably of all behaviour changes you can make, other than giving up driving , this one probably reduces your emissions the most. If you are vegan and also eat local and organic that’s even better. Our collective eating habits impact the agricultural system, but even more profoundly, federal subsidies influences what gets produced and consumed in our agricultural system. Because corn, wheat, and soybean production are heavily subsidized, many farms that would have grown diverse crops grow exclusively corn, wheat, and soybean. This has resulted in a huge oversupply of those crops, 40-60% of which ends up getting fed to livestock. The rest is unloaded on the population in the form of high fructose corn syrup, cereal, and other processed foods of little nutritional value.[ix] So changing federal subsidies could change the entire agricultural system, and lessen consumption of meat and processed foods.
It’s arguable that if everyone became vegetarian, moved to smaller houses, and drove less, the overall impact could be comparable to changes made at the system level. However, it takes a lot of resources to conduct effective educational campaigns and many of them do not result in behavior change. For example, more than $6.2 billion was spent on the 2012 election to get you to vote one way or another.[x] Think about all the signs, videos, and rallies that you saw that whole year. Voting is a relatively simple thing to do. It takes at most a couple of hours for you to get to your polling place, stand in line, cast your ballot, and you don’t have to do it again for two years. Even then, only 64% of Americans voted in the 2012 election, and only 42% voted in 2014.[xi] An educational campaign to get people to eat less meat, live in smaller houses, or drive less would have to be mounted at the scale of a presidential campaign to get a fraction of that level of response, and these choices are far more difficult than voting. Clearly, industry and billionaires are not lining up to donate big money to get you to eat less or (God forbid) buy less stuff. We are constantly bombarded by the opposite in every source of media. For a movement that has few monetary resources, educational campaigns for individual behavior change is not a wise use of resources.
Individual behavior change is important for walking the talk, but keeping our Earth at a livable temperature would be impossible if that was all we did. The Civil Rights Movement did not succeed by convincing individuals to be less racist, it succeeded by achieving system changes mandated by law. Sit-ins and riding in the white section of buses forced whites to confront blacks in their own space, however, activists knew that those actions were symbolic. Protests, marches, and other campaigns directed at the government made it clear that Civil Rights was a matter of policy, not individual behavior. The campaign for gay marriage also demonstrated the power and necessity of collective action for systemic change.
Compared to the Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement has been remarkably unconfrontational. A lot of energy has been spent on exhorting individuals to be greener, while policy changes are usually relegated to large NGOs and government organizations. Citizens have been made to believe that it’s the role of the government to protect the environment and their role is to adjust their own lifestyle. Environmental groups that do take a confrontational approach are often labeled extremists and eco-terrorists. (It’s interesting to note that the same debate happened within the Civil Rights movement, with some supporters advocating a softer, more cooperative approach and others advocating a more confrontational approach. It’s safe to say that progress could not have been made, or at least not made as quickly, without activists spreading images of police brutality against blacks on TV).
Unfortunately, we are running out of time waiting for change to happen through softer approaches. The window in which we can act effectively on climate is closing. Well-funded right wing think tanks continue to flood the media with misinformation, convincing politicians and citizens that climate change is not an urgent issue. Individual behavior change is clearly not adding up to changes on a large scale (especially when offset by population growth and growing consumption in developing countries), and many of the softer, more cooperative approaches that have been attempted for decades have not led to systemic changes. What we need is collective activism aimed at systemic changes, changes that would mandate emission reductions from industry, governments, and even individuals. We also need education that catalyzes activism and provides people with the tools to organize collective action.
So what are actions individuals can take to affect system change?
Participate in protests and direct actions. During the 1950s and 1960s, participating in protests and direct actions was a rite of passage for young Americans. Issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights, and pollution compelled people to take to the streets and demand change at the highest levels of government. Today, direct action is often seen as the action of hippies rather than respectable professionals. While softer approaches may result in incremental change, sometimes the opposition is so entrenched that only more confrontational approaches will be taken seriously.
The Keystone XL campaign showed the efficacy of direct action against a very powerful adversary—the oil and gas industry. For years, the environmental groups (led by 350.org), indigenous communities, social justice advocates, religious groups and other sympathizers worked together to mount coordinated direct actions against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, including the largest climate demonstrations in history in New York and Washington DC. Pipeline supporters were sure that the permit for construction would go through Congress and there was no serious threat from environmentalists. However the movement’s unrelenting pushback delayed approval of the project and swayed political opinion. Six years after the project’s proposal, it was finally rejected by President Obama. “Once the grass-roots movement on the Keystone pipeline mobilized, it changed what it meant to the president,” said Douglas G. Brinkley, a historian at Rice University who writes about presidential environmental legacies. “It went from a routine infrastructure project to the symbol of an era.”
Get involved in your community. While campaigns such as Keystone XL are enormous efforts conducted at the national level, many important battles are fought at the local level. The fight against fracking has primarily taken place in rural towns, counties, and sometimes at the state level where the opposition is a small group of activists. Community groups have blocked the permitting of pipelines in their municipalities in towns across Pennsylvania, where the state still allows fracking. In New York, citizen activism contributed to a total of 180 fracking bans and moratoria in cities and towns across the state.[xii]
Not all activism has to be in opposition to destructive practices. As much as we need to stop the old way of doing things, it is just as important to do the positive things that bring to life the vision of a just and sustainable world. In every community there are people who are working to make their community more sustainable and resilient, initiatives such as farmers markets, reuse and recycling programs, composting, all help to reduce our climate impact at the systems level. We can join sustainability committees and advocate for positive measures such as increasing public transit and revising zoning laws to favor environmentally friendly practices. We can submit comments to public projects, and vote on public legislation. We can get involved in clubs, school boards, religious congregations, and residential communities to help usher in greener practices beyond our own households. By starting with organizations that we are already involved in, we can make a difference in our own communities.
Support environmental organizations. Collin Beavan, who spent a year reducing his environmental impact to zero and making a documentary about it, said he’s often asked “If I could only do one thing, what should I do to help the planet?” Having figured out how to do his laundry without a washing machine and keep food without a refrigerator, his answer was not for us to do the same, but to “support an environmental organization.” As individuals, we may not have the expertise, time, or means to do things like preserve biodiversity in the Amazon or participate in climate demonstrations, but we can support an environmental organization whose mission is to do those things. Donate funds. Sign a petition and spread the word about direct action if you cannot go to a march yourself. At Earth Deeds, we have developed a database that allows you to search for thousands of environmental projects and organizations all over the world by keyword or location. Our online tools also allow you to donate to a project of your choice while accounting for your own carbon footprint.
It’s even better if the organization you support is one that works for systemic change. One of my favorites is MovetoAmend.org, which has introduced to Congress a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that will 1) revoke protections granted to citizens to corporations under the Constitution, 2) limit the amount of contributions that can be given to candidates running for political office to ensure that all citizens have access to the political process. Since big money has such a corrupting influence on our democracy, I can think of no systemic change that would have a more profound impact in our quest for justice and sustainability.
Learn activism and organizing. In order to be effective agents of system change, we need to learn the skills of activism. We can educate ourselves by learning from seasoned activists and getting involved in organizations, staying up to date with campaigns, and improve leadership skills through practice. Educators can teach the skills of activism in classrooms and support co-curricular activities that foster this type of learning. One of my favorite classes at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies was Environmental Campaigns. We learned about environmental campaigns throughout American history and we met with and talked to the president of Greenpeace and other important activists in the field. We analyzed how environmental campaigns are run and what makes some more successful than others. This kind of education for essential citizenship is sorely lacking in our institutions and could mean the difference between students who are content with individual behavior change and students who are not afraid to take on the institutions that serve them and demand change in fundamental ways.
Without collective action for systemic change, none of the important breakthroughs for progress would have happened. Civil rights would not have happened, women’s rights would not have been mandated, gay rights would not have been legislated, and the protections that we enjoy for clean air and clean water would not have been put into place. We are beyond the point where we can heal the planet one lightbulb at a time. With so much resources devoted by the opposition to make sure business continues as usual, it’s even more important that we use the most important tool available to us, the power of the collective in a democracy. Individual behavior and lifestyle change are still needed, but we would be deluding ourselves to think that doing so is enough. Climate change is a system problem waiting for system solutions. Let’s act collectively to find them.