Today I’ve been thinking about a couple of environmental articles I’ve read. Both present a similar viewpoint: individual changes to consumption or recycling won’t impact the environmental crisis the planet is facing.
The first, I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. by Mary Anaise Heglar, argues against apathy, despair and a sense of nihilism that pervades some of the environmental debate. Industries and governments have transferred responsibility onto individuals and “it’s victim blaming, plain and simple.” Heglar says:
We need to let go of the idea that it’s all of our individual faults, then take on the collective responsibility of holding the true culprits accountable.
She explains that “environmentalism’ is often seen as personal consumption and that it becomes reduced to what products individuals use and their zero-waste lifestyles. Industry has been pitching this as the environmental narrative since the 1970s, Heglar says, and its over-emphasis on consumers as the cause of the problems.
Her argument is that individuals actions will not solve the climate crisis:
…the more we focus on individual action and neglect systemic change, the more we’re just sweeping leaves on a windy day. So while personal actions can be meaningful starting points, they can also be dangerous stopping points.
Heglar insists that political action is what is required. She isn’t interested in how environmentally-friendly anyone is, only that they want a “livable future”. It’s straightforward, sensible advice.
Likewise, the positive and practical piece, How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change by Emma Mariss, sets out five steps those who are worried about environmental damage to the planet should take: stop feeling guilt, focus on political change, join an effective campaigning organisation and – importantly – have a vision of the world you want to see.
Martin views political, systematic change as the means of tackling climate catastrophe: “It misleads us into thinking that we have agency only by dint of our consumption habits — that buying correctly is the only way we can fight climate change.” She goes on to argue that, even if someone could reduce their environmental impact to zero, individual
My point is that the climate crisis is not going to be solved by personal sacrifice. It will be solved by electing the right people, passing the right laws, drafting the right regulations, signing the right treaties — and respecting those treaties already signed, particularly with indigenous nations. It will be solved by holding the companies and people who have made billions off our shared atmosphere to account.
She advises joining an effective campaigning group and finding a contributing role (“Take care not to overdo it at first and risk burning out. Set a sustainable level of involvement for yourself and keep it up.”)
One of her most important points is that campaigners should be fighting for something rather than against. It’s vital to have a vision of the future, she says, and presents hers:
Imagine dense but livable cities veined with public transit and leafy parks, infrastructure humming away to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, fake meat that tastes better than the real thing, species recovering and rewilding the world, the rivers silver with fish, the skies musical with flocking birds… This is a future in which children don’t need to take to the streets in protest and alarm, because their parents and grandparents took action. Instead, they are climbing trees.
When people dismiss statements about the right-wing, anti-democratic nature of the current political regime, it’s worth pointing out that one feature of authoritarian regimes is to only allow forms of protest that they consider allowable. Grouping peaceful protest groups with violent, racist ones is certainly a way of attempting to frighten people from dissent. It’s very worrying if teachers are expected to report children for becoming interested in environmental or animal rights politics.