Skip to main content
Skip Navigation

Dear Environmentalists—Let’s Embrace Both Individual and Systemic Change

By: Raychel Santo

Back in October 2011 I participated in Project Green Challenge, a transformational eco-lifestyle and leadership competition for students. (You can even watch my embarrassing video highlighting the experience). The extensive daily challenges I was faced with, from carrying all the trash I generated around with me and assessing the ingredients in my cleaning products to bringing e-cycling boxes to dorms and lobbying for reusable to-go containers in dining halls, cemented into my consciousness the realities of nearly every global environmental issue. Therefore, it was upsetting when I was invited out to California as a finalist for the competition and realized that the ecological footprint of that single roundtrip flight negated the climate benefits of all the environmentally-minded lifestyle choices I had made during that “super-eco” month. (To be honest, that flight negated almost a year’s worth of super-eco habits.) I had been advocating for reducing, reusing, and recycling when possible, and swapping in more sustainable product choices when needed. But this was the first time I truly appreciated how much more change we (privileged and relatively affluent global citizens) would have to embrace. The future I was advocating for would require refusing some of life’s most exciting opportunities.

Fast forward to two years later. I had begun turning down personal and professional travel offers, but I still found myself struggling with the distress that came with having to decide whether a flight was “worth the ecological cost.” It was incredibly difficult to explain to a family member or close friend that my decision to not attend a wedding, funeral, baby shower, or family reunion (when I couldn’t get there by train or bus) was not because I did not love them, but because I was worried about its impact on less privileged others, on my and my family’s imminent future, on future generations. Meanwhile, declining exceptional professional experiences, from job offers that would involve extensive traveling to conferences where I could meet and even present in front of esteemed leaders, also came across as presumptuous for a 21-year-old. I felt overwhelmed by these moral and emotional dilemmas that no one else seemed to understand.

Then a friend sent me a sobering and poignant piece by meteorologist Eric Holthaus describing his emotional breakdown about our collective futures, prompting his decision to “never fly again” and possibly not even have kids. His honest reflection on the struggle of navigating life in face of such daunting information resonated with me profoundly. I realized that that was exactly what I needed—the human face to the science I’d been studying for years. I went down the rabbit hole of exploring how people working on these problems day in and day out were finding ways to have joyous and fulfilling lives, both in light of their demoralizing work and in line with their values.

I became increasingly bothered by how quick some of these people were finding their bold and difficult decisions disparaged. Critics from both the left and right mounted attacks, ranging from claims that individual actions don’t matter to judgmental dismissals of the emotional or “hysteric” nature of the individuals’ concerns. The critiques shouldn’t have surprised me—if you spend time among advocates for any number of progressive issues, you’ll find yourself steeped in debates about whether it’s more effective to change the system or to change one’s personal behavior. However, the debates ignited a flame of frustration in me that hasn’t seemed to die down since.

On the one hand, I recognize there are compelling arguments that individual action is futile in the face of corrupt power structures and the inevitable consequences of an economy dependent on interminable growth. Here’s an example of some of the most powerful ones:

“Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?”       —Derrick Jensen, “Forget Shorter Showers” (2009)

“In placing responsibility so squarely on the individual, this approach deflects attention from the many institutions that shape options and opportunities, and which makes some courses of action more likely than others.” —Elizabeth Shove, “Going beyond the ABC of climate change policy” (2009)

As economists Kate Raworth and Tim Jackson have persuasively argued, there is virtually no chance of avoiding the worst ecological disasters and providing a decent life for a growing global population if our political narratives and goals remain concentrated on narrow metrics such as GDP. Systemic change is also particularly popular amongst social scientists who have studied how norms, habits, and structures change. As their findings suggest, change almost never stems from individual ethical choices. For example, the prominent UK sociologist Elizabeth Shove has made convincing cases that increases in showering, air conditioning, car driving, and other environmentally destructive consumption practices stem from changing social conventions around comfort, cleanliness, and convenience.

We absolutely need to restructure our economy, better distribute social and political power, and make environmentally-friendly lifestyles the default choice. But I always fall back to one question: how do we compel our fellow citizens and politicians to vote/protest/embrace these critical systemic changes if we don’t appear to be taking the issue seriously enough to make the radical changes we’re preaching?

Unfortunately, the argument for dedicating one’s efforts to systemic solutions too often serves as an excuse for ignoring one’s personal role in the problems. But ignoring your own personal role in the problem undermines your credibility. (See, for example, the Al Gore carbon footprint critiques). Those who advocate that personal lifestyles matter point out the that individual environmental footprints can be quite significant, especially for us affluent global citizens who have the time/energy to advocate on environmental issues. (According to an Oxfam 2015 report, the richest 10% of people around the world—those making >$35,000/year—are responsible for around 50% of global GHG emissions.) They suggest that this reality indicates a moral imperative for personal change first and foremost:

“Life in a changing climate is awash with such thorny issues and tough decisions. To me the guiding principle (supported by the maths) is that those of us responsible for the lion’s share of emissions are the same group that need to drive emissions down – and fast… The future is in our hands now, our lifestyles, behaviours, practices and habits.” —Kevin Anderson, “Hypocrites in the Air” (2013)

“…it’s really hard to change the world when your first priority is making sure that the little world around yourself doesn’t change. People need to be willing to let go of their immediate security if we’re really going to strive for a different world.” —Tim DeChristopher (2014)​

The importance of lifestyle congruity with personal and environmental values is also recognized in the academic literature. As several studies indicate, people are more likely to listen to scientists who walk their talk. The same, I imagine, goes for the citizen advocate. Given that most self-identified environmentalists don’t have substantially lower environmental footprints than the average person, we have a long way to go.

Ultimately, radical lifestyle changes are necessary for almost everyone in industrialized countries. Even if we change the economic and political structures upholding the worst industrial and corporate offenders, we can’t sustain current consumption levels if we want to have a chance of mitigating the worst environmental disasters our generation faces, from biodiversity collapse and freshwater shortages to nitrogen pollution and climate change. We need to drastically change social norms to encourage wide uptake of the practices that leave the smallest dent on our collective futures—namely having fewer children, flying and driving less (or not at all), eating less meat and dairy, living in smaller homes, and relying upon renewable energy. Those who are experimenting with—and maybe even providing a model for— such practices should be taken seriously; in turn, they should support those who are advocating for the policies that will make such practices the norm.

So my concluding plea to this rambling reflection? Let’s quit shaming advocates on either side and start finding more ways to collaborate with one another. Let’s recognize that:

  • We need climate scientists and anthropologists to challenge academic obligations around conference attendance—by making personal commitments to stop or substantially reduce their air travel. We also need advocates fighting fossil fuel subsidies and pushing for substantial and immediate government investment in alternative fuels.
  • We need vegetarians and vegans attending dinner parties, hosting recipe blogs, and sharing tips on eating less meat and dairy in delicious and filling ways, in order to normalize plant-based eating. (And they must do so while respecting those who choose other, potentially less climate-friendly diets, with the understanding that diet is complicated, especially when families, household budgets, and geographical access are involved.) We also need those working for larger-scale change by pushing for public institution, hospital, and restaurant policies and menus that make plant-based options more available, more affordable, and more enticing. And to make sure such consumption changes lead to reduced production, we also need those fighting the national and international policies perpetuating the rapid expansion of meat and dairy production and trade.
  • We need more people walking, biking, and taking public transit. We also need advocates working to improve the transit infrastructure to make those options easier, cheaper, and (one can dream…) faster than driving.
  • We need zero-waste gurus who are finding creative ways to eat, clean, dress, and otherwise exist without relying on landfills or incinerators. And perhaps, in the challenge of doing so, they’ll recognize that we also need those working towards more comprehensive policies to reduce packaging at the source, enable municipal compost collection, and reduce the injustices that our waste creates.

And lastly, let’s remember that these roles are not mutually exclusive. If anything, we’ll be more effective advocates on all sides if we’re able to enthusiastically adopt both personal and political actions.

More Stories and Viewpoints

A Victory for Oklahoma in Poultry Pollution Case

A federal judge has ordered 11 poultry companies in Oklahoma to remediate the watershed and limit their spreading of manure on crops.

Mighty Millets Have Potential for Positive Change

An overlooked grain, the mighty millet, has potential to mitigate climate change, improve nutrition, and make positive change in industrial food animal production.

Bob Lawrence: The Long View on Food System Reform

Director emeritus Bob Lawrence reflects on CLF’s progress on creating positive change in industrial food animal production models.