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Green Beat: Environmentalism success comes only after advocacy

Many things have been written against lifestyle environmentalism. Some writers attack it as unnecessary, believing it exaggerates the damage human beings do to the environment. This is common among those who deny global warming is occurring or is caused by human beings. Others admit we are harming the planet, but argue that the focus on personal choices ignores the role technology and policy decisions have to play in decreasing and reversing these negative outcomes. Those of us who are convinced that the former group are ignoring the evidence find it easy to brush their arguments aside, but the latter present a stronger challenge. Do they have a point?

The strongest assault on lifestyle environmentalism I have encountered is the article “The return of the monkish virtues” by Arthur Renn, writing for The Urbanophile. He argues that those who change their lifestyles for the sake of ecological concerns are actually engaged in pseudo-religious attempts to do penance for the negative effects of our society on the planet. “Green” people are less interested in effectively fighting climate change than in self-denial, asceticism, and self-righteousness. If they were realistic in their efforts to oppose global warming, they would spend less time worrying about personal consumption, act more like everyone else in daily life and mainly focus on political routes to change.

However, the consequences of carelessness in our personal choices are more significant than Renn is willing to admit. As Scientific American stated earlier this month, “Global food waste represents more greenhouse gas emissions than any country in the world except for China and the United States.” Clearly, a little more conscientiousness in personal life would go a long way in this area alone.

Bill McKibben, founder of, an environmental organization created to raise awareness of the climate, is more diplomatic than Renn. He also claims that individual lifestyle changes are not going to give the environmental movement success. Earlier this year, after major protests against the proposed trans-continental Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry millions of gallons of crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, McKibben wrote that avoiding catastrophic climate change is a “task that instead requires deep structural reform.” In other words, he thinks political efforts are absolutely necessary. This is not to say that individual efforts to consume less are irrelevant, but that they are not enough.

It seems that lifestyle environmentalism is a sensible response to climate change while advocating for larger actions in our own communities and nations, but it is not going to be effective in stopping climate change unless this advocacy is successful. Wasting less food in our kitchens will not bring levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million in the near future. Large-scale efforts, including changing the size of the human footprint upon our planet, require large-scale coordination. While urging governments to take on this role, we can also make changes in our own habits for the better. These changes should not satisfy us that we are where we want to be, but remind us of our commitment to getting there.

Zach Wilson is a senior studying philosophy. Do you think personal changes are enough to stop global warming? You can tell him at


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