The following is a talk I gave at the New York State Sustainability Conference which draws from several articles I’ve written on this topic, with a new introduction.
The day after the Trump Inauguration, people from all over the world participated in the largest public demonstration for civil rights that has ever taken place in the United States. Millions of people from all over the country and the world stood together for women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, and environmental justice. The demonstrations were reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement that occurred in the 20th century, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. While it remains to be seen whether the outrage over the new administration can be channeled into legislative action, it is clear that collective action has sparked a mass movement with far-reaching consequences.
If we compare the U.S. environmental movement with the African American civil rights movement, and other social justice movements of the last century, the environmental movement has been remarkably non-confrontational, seen primarily as a special interest divorced from the larger movement for social justice. Until very recently, there were no major demonstrations on climate change, despite it being a known threat for nearly a century; there were no popular figures who frequently appeared in the media to champion the cause, and no dramatic footage of species die-offs or climate refugees on a daily basis to heighten our sense of urgency. The fragmentation of the media means that it is easier than ever to only see news that we want to see and hear opinions that confirm our own bias.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring powerfully spoke out about the danger of pesticides, and her lobbying in Congress led to their eventual ban. Other incidents such as Love Canal and acid rain sparked the passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and many others in the 1970s. The threat of ozone depletion led to the Montreal Protocol, the first international agreement on an environmental issue. However, beginning in the 1980s, the environmental movement began to take a more laid-back approach. Unlike activists from the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, women’s rights, or the LGBT movement who organized demonstrations and demanded change from legal institutions, the environmental movement decided that it was enough for citizens to recycle, bike to work, use reusable water bottles, and other forms of individual action as a way of addressing environmental ills.
Instead of organized political resistance, protecting the right of future generations to have a livable planet became a matter of individual lifestyle choices. The rhetoric from environmental and government institutions became, the planet is dying because individuals are making unsustainable consumer choices. So what if the majority of the country lacks convenient mass transit? You can buy a hybrid car! Or, our industrial agricultural system is ruining our land, water, and atmosphere, but you can buy local and organic. In this manner, the sustainable lifestyle becomes the domain of the elite, a way for the wealthy to ease their guilt and feel protected from the problems that are making the planet an increasingly hostile place to live. Instead of regulating pollution from industry and building sustainable communities, we are told that we should buy greener products.
Not only does this approach ignore the source of the problem, it doesn’t work. The reason is that the vast majority of environmental impact is the result of industrial activities, and individual actions do not address the incentives and structures that created the problem. Let me provide a few examples:
Let’s say you are a super environmentalist and you recycle and compost all of your waste. Then you went to your university (or wherever you are employed) and convinced them to recycle and compost all of their waste too. All of that paper, plastic, and food scraps look like a lot, but it accounts for only three percent of total waste in the United States.[i]
Then you go home where you have been taking shorter showers for years. The average amount of water used by a shower is 2.5 gallons per minute, so by shortening your shower by one minute every day for a year, you save 912 gallons of water.[ii] Not bad. However, fracking uses an average of 5 million gallons of water for each well.[iii] 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 U.S. alone.[iv] That’s a lot of showers, not to mention drinking water, crop irrigation, and other necessary uses for water.
You replace ten regular lightbulbs in your home with CFLs, thereby avoiding 0.68 tons of carbon dioxide in a year.[v] Since changing light bulbs 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.[vi] Since the total number of households in the United States is approximately 115 million, even if every household replaced ten light bulbs, that would only reduce emissions from electricity by three percent. [vii]
You have a 20-mile round trip commute each day and you reduce your emissions by upgrading your car from one that gets twenty mpg to one that gets thirty mpg, saving 1,600 lbs of CO2 a year.[viii] However, if you took that commute by public transit, you would reduce your emissions by more than 4,800 pounds a year.[ix] Remember the bus carries other people too, so if your bus replaced the commutes of twenty people in single occupancy vehicles, then together you would avoid 96,000 pounds (44 tons) of CO2. That’s 58 times more CO2 avoided than upgrading your own car.
You also become a vegetarian, saving at least three thousand pounds of CO2 per year compared to meat eaters.[x] That’s a pretty big impact; probably of all behavior changes you can make—other than giving up driving—this one probably reduces your emissions the most. Our collective eating habits impact the agricultural system, but even more profoundly, federal subsidies determine 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 for local consumption grow exclusively corn, wheat, and soybean. This has resulted in a huge oversupply of those crops, 40-60 percent of which ends up getting fed to livestock.[xi] The rest is unloaded on the population in the form of high fructose corn syrup, cereal, and other processed foods of little nutritional value.
You argue that if everyone did like you—become vegetarian, drive less, and move to smaller houses—the overall impact could be pretty significant. Aside from the fact that household energy use accounts for only eleven percent of total energy use in the United States and municipal golf courses use more water than all households combined,[xii] 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.[xiii] 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 percent of Americans voted in the 2012 election, and only 42 percent voted in 2014.[xiv] 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.
Even though the ineffectiveness of the “sustainable living” approach is not hard to realize, the environmental movement has nevertheless promoted “sustainability” as the solution. In every organization with a green strategy, sustainability coordinators are busy figuring out bike shares, composting, installing energy dashboards, and building LEED buildings. These are all good things that create better communities and improve quality of life, but they do not address the fundamental problems that we know are causing the environmental crisis. For the most part, instead of confronting the systems and institutions that have created the environmental crisis, we exhort students to take shorter showers and for employees to turn off the lights. I think there are several reasons for this timid environmentalism.
First, we do not like being confrontational. In any movement where one group of people are being oppressed by another, it is necessary for the oppressed population to confront their oppressors and force them to give up their power. The environmental crisis is a problem of unequal distribution of resources due to the unequal distribution of power. Yet instead of challenging that power, we opt for non-confrontational approaches like recycling and changing light bulbs. And since environmental organizations are increasingly funded by private interests, challenging those interests is what some would consider professional suicide.
We are also heir to the legacy of the conservation movement, whose founders were a technocratic and elite group looking to preserve land for hunting and recreation. These people were not interested in challenging the capitalist system which had made them wealthy. Instead of mandating that industry clean up their act, pay a price on carbon emissions, or create products for reuse and longevity, the architects of the environmental movement have told us that the captains of industry are not more responsible than anyone else. The blame has been laid on people with the least power, including women in developing countries who have too many children, to impoverished Americans that can’t afford to upgrade their homes to models of energy efficiency. Instead of making those who create the problem responsible, we blame their victims.
The third reason is that we continue to be influenced by neoliberal doctrines that gained widespread acceptance in the 80s. Ronald Regan and conservative thinkers of the era promoted the ideals of a limited government, a self-regulating free market that maximizes profits by exploiting natural and human resources, and cutting social benefits for the middle and lower classes. Responsibility for environmental problems was radically reassigned from government and corporate entities to individual consumers and their decisions in the marketplace. In this context, environmentalism shifted its focus from regulating industry and punishing wrongdoers to promoting “win-win” strategies that advertised green consumerism while still increasing corporate profits.
Along with the growing trend towards limited government, there has also been a trend of diminishing interest in civic engagement. Voter turnout declined ten percent between 1960 and 2000, accompanied by a decline in other forms of political participation, such as volunteering for political parties and attendance at town meetings.[xv] It became popular to believe that government is incompetent, that social benefits are a waste of tax revenue, and the marketplace is our best hope of obtaining the goods and services that could be provided by government. This disaffection with civic engagement has led the environmental movement to distance itself from political engagement and to turn inward towards individual solutions such as home weatherization and composting, and donating to nonprofit organizations who perhaps will do the political engagement for us.
In the end, no matter how many cans you recycle or how much you do it in the dark, our systems and institutions will continue to warm the planet and pollute the oceans without legislative mandates. Michael Maniates, professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS College writes, “Individualization, by implying that any action beyond the private and the consumptive is irrelevant insulates people from the empowering experiences and political lessons of collective struggle for social change, and reinforces corrosive myths about the difficulties of public life.”[xvi] We find a parallel in the happiness movement, which has become very popular in recent years. Instead of mobilizing citizens and confronting politicians with the growing income inequality in our society, we resort to individual actions like meditation, yoga, cooking, coloring, and a plethora of self-improvement projects to cope with increasing social ills.
Having explored all the reasons why individual actions are inadequate and misguided, what can we do to create meaningful change? The problems—climate change, loss of biodiversity, sea level rise—are urgent, and unless we can come together and implement systemic solutions, they will only become worse.
First, we need to realize that our individual consumption is not the cause of the environmental crisis. Unless we live lavish lifestyles, our day-to-day energy consumption is insiginficant in the overall scheme of things. Even if collectively we contribute to global warming, it is wrong to assume that they are all the result of our individual choices rather than the result of social, economic, and political forces that have in large measure, made those choices for us. Social ecologist Murray Bookchin argues that
It is inaccurate and unfair to coerce people into believing that they are personally responsible for present-day ecological disasters because they consume too much or proliferate too readily. This privatization of the environmental crisis, like the New Age cults that focus on personal problems rather than on social dislocations, has reduced many environmental movements to utter ineffectiveness and thretens to diminish their credibility with the public. If “simple living” and militant recycling are the main solutions to the environmental crisis, the crisis will certainly continue and intensify.[xvii]
Second, we need to understand that we are citizens in a participatory democracy first, and consumers second. As citizens we have access to a wide array of tools for creating change besides consuming or not consuming. “Citizens can organize and mobilize, they can speak, publish, and and change public opinion, they can lobby and introduce legislation, and they can vote and protest,” says Derrick Jensen. If the institutions that are supposed to serve them are not serving them, citizens have the right to change and abolish those institutions.
So what does that mean for those of us who want to make a difference?
It means that we can join environmental organizations dedicated to collective action for policy solutions, like Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which is mobilizing citizens to advocate for a national price on carbon, or 350.org.
It means that we can develop relationships with our senators and representatives in Congress, and make sure that they represent our interests when making national legislation. And when they don’t, we make sure that the public is aware of their failings and vote them out of office.
It means that we participate in town halls and sustainability committees and advocate for environmental decisions made at our work, schools and communities.
It means that if we are an expert, like Sandra Steingraber who incited New York residents to call for a ban on fracking, or Marc Edwards, the professor at Virgnia Tech who exposed the Flint Michigan water crisis, that we speak up and fight with communities suffering from environmental injustice.
It means that we stop being so polite and challenge those in power to do the right things.
It means that instead of leaving after talking about problems around seminar tables, we join the communities who are on the frontlines of environmental destruction to protest the abuses of power.
It means that we expand our vision beyond what we can do as individuals to act collectively to affect social change.
Individual actions are important for walking the talk and improving our communities, but keeping our Earth at a livable temperature would be impossible if that was all we did. 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). We should remember that the civil rights movement did not succeed by convincing individuals to be less racist, it succeeded by achieving system changes mandated by law. Whether we leave a livable planet to future generations is a not a matter of individual lifestyle choices. Only by acting collectively as citizens in a democracy to challenge the unequal distribution of power can we hope to create the world we want to live in.
[i] Jensen, Derrick. “Forget Taking Shorter Showers,” Orion Magazine, July, 2009. https://orionmagazine.org/article/forget-shorter-showers/
[ii] Pays to Live Green. “Quick Saving Tip: Taking Shorter Showers.” Last modified February, 2009. http://www.paystolivegreen.com/quick-saving-tip-shorter-showers/
[iii] Goldberg, Susan. “Fracking produces annual toxic waste water enough to flood Washington DC.” The Guardian, October 4, 2013. Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/04/fracking-us-toxic-waste-water-washington
[iv] Goldberg, “Fracking.”
[v] Fat Knowledge. “CO2 Emissions: Light Bulbs vs. Cars.” Last modified June 30, 2006. http://fatknowledge.blogspot.com/2006/06/co2-emissions-light-bulbs-vs-cars.html
[vii] Statistic Brain. “Total Number of U.S. Households.” Last modified September 3, 2016. http://www.statisticbrain.com/u-s-household-statistics/
[viii] Fat Knowledge. “CO2 Emissions.”
[ix] American Public Transportation Association. “Public Transportation Benefits.” Last accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.apta.com/mediacenter/ptbenefits/Pages/default.aspx
[xi] Cornell University. “U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists.” Last modified August 7, 1997. http://news.cornell.edu/stories/1997/08/us-could-feed-800-million-people-grain-livestock-eat
[xii] Residence on Earth. “Why Behavior Change Won’t Stop Climate Change.” Last modified December 2, 2015. https://residenceonearth.net/2015/12/02/why-behavior-change-wont-stop-climate-change/
[xiv] United States Elections Project. “Voter Turnout.” Last accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data
[xv] United States Elections Project. “Voter Turnout.”
[xvi] Maniates, Michael F. “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” Global Environmental Politics 1, no. 3 (2001): 31-52. doi:10.1162/152638001316881395.
[xvii] Maniates, Michael F. “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” Global Environmental Politics 1, no. 3 (2001): 31-52. doi:10.1162/152638001316881395.