This is a common theme with many discussions on environmentalism and reducing the impacts of climate change. There are many people who watch the news, research the issues, read reports such as https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/global-environment-outlook-6 and come to the conclusion that the only way to prevent disastrous warming and widespread suffering is to demand that governments and businesses take responsibility and change the systems that created this mess.
Systemic change is important. The IPCC has stated that we have until 2030 to avoid global warming of more than 1.5 degrees celsius and the catastrophic effects of that level of warming. Trying to make the big changes that are necessary before 2030 is not going to be easy. We do need leadership and we need governments and businesses to fully appreciate the issues and work towards finding solutions.
There are many ways that we can try to influence these governments and businesses. Attending rallies and strikes sends a clear message that this is an issue that people care about. Writing letters to businesses expressing our desire for more sustainable products and services. Writing to our local members and expressing our concern. These are all great ways to voice our concern.
However, if this top-down approach isn’t paired with individual action to reduce our own personal impact, it is next to worthless.
Trying to influence our leaders and remind them that we care is important. The uncomfortable reason that these actions alone aren’t effective is that not everyone cares about climate change. This is an important fact to remember. Particularly in the world of social media. We (including myself) can easily get caught in a bubble thinking that because most people around us care, that most people around everywhere must care. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true.
Equality doesn’t just apply when its convenient or politically correct. In most developed countries, citizens are free to elect their officials and buy whatever they please. These systems of democracy and capitalism mean that the majority decide, whether you or I are part of that majority or not.
I just want to clarify something before we go any further, I am by no means a libertarian. I believe that there should be boundaries on markets and the economy just as there are in nature. Nothing can grow forever and our economy is no exception. I also believe that the economy should be more distributive and do more to help those who are disadvantaged. I am now of voting age and every time I have been to the little booth to exercise my democratic right, I have done a little research on the candidates and I vote for the candidate that I believe most closely aligns with my beliefs. Along with every other voter in the election, we are each allowed to have our say in who we think our leaders should be. On Saturday the 18th of May 2019, the majority of Australian people elected a party with a Prime Minister who brought a lump of coal into Parliament as a prop to tease the opposition.
The majority of voters didn’t agree with my personal views. That might be uncomfortable, but whether I like it or not, it’s a fact. I have since talked to a few different people who did vote for the man above, some of whom I would consider friends. For many of these people, the environment is an important issue, just not as important as some of their other beliefs. These people are just as entitled to their beliefs as you or I and we all get the same single vote. If you want to argue to change the system of our elections then you need to be clear on which part of the system you want to change. Do you want there to be less fear-mongering and misinformation? I wholeheartedly agree. Do you want to lower the voting age to include the 16 and 17-year-olds who are well aware of the issues and will be the ones who have to clean up the mess? Again, I wholeheartedly agree. Want to change who gets to vote or how much their vote is worth because the election didn’t go the way you hoped? I have to disagree.
It’s a similar story for corporations and businesses. Writing to businesses to tell them that you would appreciate them operating more sustainably is a great way to voice your concern. However, a corporation isn’t going to change their business plan over some letters. Small businesses might, B corps or non-profits might change the way they do things if enough people write in but large corporations base their businesses and whatever they produce or provide on what people will buy.
In the same way that we all have the same one vote, we all have the same money and we all have some power to choose to buy more sustainable products and services.
This isn’t to say that we don’t need to change the way we consume. For the sake of the planet, we need to change the way we consume. The same way that we need a change in political leadership (or just some political leadership) if we are to stop climate change. But, the same way that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and the right to have their say in electing an official who shares those beliefs, we all have the same ability to buy things that align with our beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs might be. I might strongly disagree with a person owning and regularly using a private jet but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to exercise their right to buy and use the jet anyway.
I am worried that if people focus on trying to create systemic change without also trying to reduce their own personal impact, they will end up in a very small bubble of people who agree with them and see everyone else as people to be convinced, converted or preached to. When this happens, people struggle to remember that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and are free to act according to their values. Ironically, the deeper that you go into this bubble, the less likely you are of convincing anyone to make any sort of adjustments in favour of the environment.
So, while systemic change might be necessary and writing letters and showing up to a rally are important ways of voicing your concern, it is best paired with finding ways to reduce our own environmental impact. We can’t force people to vote a certain way or buy certain things. People will vote however they please and buy whatever they want
And here is the best thing about making adjustments to our own lifestyle. When we find the right adjustments and make them with humility. When we don’t pretend like we’re some sort of expert or eco-god (Tom and I are certainly far from perfect). When we make the right adjustments, have fun along the way and end up saving money and living healthier lives, our lifestyles become powerful advertisements for living more sustainably. When you go and figure out ways to adjust your own lifestyle and your friends and family see you doing it, they are much more likely to adjust their own lifestyle than if you had just ranted at them for half an hour over family dinner.
We do need systemic change if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But we live in a society where systemic change only happens if the majority want it. Rallies and letters are a great way to voice your concern. But, if you want to work on getting us to the majority that we need to make those systemic changes, figure out ways to reduce your own impact. When your friends, family and colleagues ask why you’re doing it, have an open conversation with them and explain that you’re trying to take control of your own impact on climate change and invite them to join you. The invitation might be all the motivation they need, or they might question every aspect of your decision. Either response is fine. If they join you on the journey of riding to work or eating less meat or whatever, fantastic! If they think you’re crazy, have a chat about it with them! Listen to their opinion and their point of view. Give them some time and show then how simple or fun it can be and they will almost certainly come around eventually.
We can’t just tell other people how to vote or what to buy and expect them to listen. We can rally and demand that our leaders take action but if the majority of voters and consumers aren’t convinced then little will be done. We have full control over our own lifestyles. If we work to find ways to reduce our own impact and show the many benefits of living more sustainably, people are much more likely to take an interest in the issues, vote for action on climate change and make adjustments to their own lifestyles as well.
No one has ever worked to solve a challenge as large as climate change because they saw people yelling on the TV. People choose to take action on these issues because they truly believe in them. Trying to get people to truly believe in an issue such as climate change is difficult, especially when people think that taking action means they have to give up everything they love. If we can find ways to adjust our own lifestyles and show the wide range of benefits to ourselves and the planet, people are much more likely to engage in the issue and understand the action that we need to take to avoid its worst effects.