This semester, I’ve written a series of columns on environmentally sustainable actions perfect for individual efforts. Changing our own transportation, living and consumption habits will indeed be imperative to reducing emissions and renegotiating a more sensitive relationship with the planet. However, as much as these individual measures are necessary, on their own, they are just as certainly not sufficient.
Rather than foisting the immense burden of addressing a truly global emergency onto discrete individuals, the climate crisis demands collective approaches. There are several reasons for this. First, some individuals are far more responsible for the crisis than others. In fact, the richest 10% of the world emit more than half of the world’s consumption-based pollution. As such, individualized solutions effectively create a regressive payment scheme in which some of the world’s most exploited people bear even more of the cost; the poorest half of the world’s population only emit 10% of total pollution, but many live in countries that are highly susceptible to the crisis.
Individuals who own and manage companies or factories can also be disproportionately responsible. In the U.S. in 2019, the commercial and industrial sectors together were responsible for 2.4 times more energy consumption and emissions than the residential sector. While consumers can alter habits to encourage companies to be more sustainable, it is invariably much harder to organize to apply this pressure on a large scale than it is to simply regulate the polluters.
In a similar vein, individualized approaches can gatekeep who can be an environmentalist along racist and classist lines. People living in rural and urban food deserts alike may not be able to create the perfect sustainable diet. Underpaid workers may not be able to afford that hybrid car or install those solar panels. In short, families already stretched thin by capitalist demands may not have the time or money to buy into purely individualized approaches to climate change.
Finally, only adopting individualist approaches would ask each person to bear the full gravity of the crisis on their shoulders. While it would be great if we all internalized a burning drive to fight climate change, imploring people to do it alone and fragmented is simply too great of an ask. It is also one that lends itself to despair and self-flagellation because both experience and instinct instruct that individual actions alone won’t cut it. What will do the job are collective approaches that, first, demand the most change from those most responsible and, second, create frameworks that make being an environmentalist practical, affordable and appealing.
Of course, the boundary between individual and collective approaches is fluid and permeable. Because we need collective action against climate change, and since collective frameworks are the product of individual actions, we must make our individual actions amount to something. In other words, we must funnel our advocacy and actions into the creation of sustainable collective frameworks so that, in turn, those collective frameworks will influence individual actions.
While we tend to imagine collective efforts as ones that occur nationally, collective approaches can happen at any geographical scale – even if it’s just you and a few neighbors. Or the whole neighborhood. Or all of Athens. Consider the use of lawn pesticides and fertilizers: you could start by talking to your immediate neighbors about an informal agreement to stop using them on your lawns. Over time, maybe that would spread through the neighborhood. After a while, your town might even codify the measure. As other towns observe the positive outcomes, perhaps they would enact similar measures, and so on.
The bottom line is that collective approaches don’t have to be grandiose (although they certainly can be); rather, they can start small and build up. Don’t stop pursuing your unique, individual habits to reverse climate change, but make sure to look out for their natural progressions into larger-scale, collective approaches. We need both to truly save the world.
Sam Smith is a senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.