Your Small Changes Won’t Save the Planet. And That’s OK

Guest post by Michelle Thompson

There’s a common story that we can save the planet through small changes to our lifestyles. Headlines bombard us every day with all the things we can and should do for the planet. The media tells us that if we recycle, compost, and bring our reusable bags, we can reduce emissions. But these lifestyle changes require sacrifices that may be inaccessible or unsustainable. Thankfully, the best way to fight climate change isn’t as individuals.

Climate Change

Climate change is long-term changes in temperature and weather patterns. Since humans began burning fossil fuels, WE have been responsible for climate change. Our greenhouse gas emissions have been the main driver of climate change.

Greenhouse gases are gases that absorb radiation from the sun and prevent heat from escaping the earth’s atmosphere. Over time, this causes the atmosphere to heat up and alter global climate patterns. Long-term effects of climate change include:

  • More frequent and severe natural disasters
  • More droughts and floods
  • Increasing sea-level rise

Anyone who burns fossil fuels contributes to climate change. In fact, some people and companies contribute much more than others.

Deflection campaigns as a corporate strategy

Corporations have pushed the idea that personal sacrifices are the way to reach our climate goals. The focus on small personal actions is an intentional deflection from large-scale polluters. If we’re focusing on individual choices, we aren’t looking at their extreme carbon emissions. As of 2017, just 100 companies account for 71% of all global emissions! And yet a tweet from Exxon Mobile asked the general public how they could reduce their personal carbon footprint. The audacity.

Corporations have used deflection campaigns since the beginning of the environmental movement.

Exxon Mobile scientist James F. Black warned the company about climate change-causing emissions in the 1970s. At this point, Exxon had already started its denial campaign. As science progressed and the evidence became harder to dismiss, they switched tactics. Instead of outright denying climate change, industries told the public that we were the problem. For example, the Keep America Beautiful campaign was created by beverage companies to tell consumers it was their responsibility to recycle bottles, not the companies’.

Focusing on personal action ignores systemic problems. So much of what we interact with daily is powered by fossil fuels and destructive practices. These include transportation, construction, energy production, and food production. Even if you ate vegan, drove an electric car, and lived plastic-free, you would still be participating in polluting systems. Your food would be grown with unsustainable farming practices. Your electricity would be generated by burning fossil fuels. It’s almost impossible to completely opt out of unsustainable systems. To come close, you’d have to disconnect from society. Most people are unable or unwilling to do this. As a result, they feel guilty for their environmental impact.

Environmental Guilt

These campaigns have created and rely on environmental guilt. This is also known as eco-anxiety, green guilt, or eco-guilt. It describes a feeling that YOU should be doing more to help the environment. For example, feeling guilty after buying something with plastic packaging.  Environmental guilt comes from a place of sincere concern. It can, though, be counter-productive to our goal of protecting the planet. Eco-anxiety can make people feel helpless and give up hope that we can stop climate change. Fortunately, there are more effective ways to meet our climate goals.

This is maybe best illustrated by the Keep America Beautiful campaign which started in the 1960s. Beverage companies introduced plastic bottles to reduce costs. Local governments started proposing laws to prohibit single-use packaging. After the first law passed in Vermont, these corporations started the Keep America Beautiful campaign. They used this public ad campaign to tell consumers that trash or litter was their fault. The campaign was widespread and after a while, the public didn’t think corporations were responsible for the trash. The ads told people to feel guilty about litter, so they did.

Personal Impacts on the Environment

Carbon Footprint

The average American contributes 16 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This is 3-4 times more than the global average of 4.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American only accounts for 0.0000000003% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about 1 in 3 billion. So why do individuals need to reduce carbon emissions? According to this data, individuals are barely contributing to climate change. Asking us to reduce personal carbon emissions only addresses a tiny amount of the total carbon emissions. We need to focus on larger emission sources, not individual carbon footprints.

Recycling programs

There is a similar trend with recycling. Of all the plastic created:

  • 79% enters the waste stream as trash
  • 12% is incinerated
  • 8.7% is recycled

This means that even if you recycled ALL of your plastic waste, you wouldn’t make a dent. The majority would still be discarded in landfills and contribute to climate change. The key takeaway is that individual changes don’t do much for climate solutions. While this may seem depressing, it’s a good thing for environmentalism. Through large-scale, systemic solutions, we can make far greater impacts. All this can be achieved even without asking people to change their lifestyles.

Energy Usage

Regular people are also told to be more energy efficient. Headlines tell us to do things like keep lights off. Or, they tell us to buy expensive energy-efficient appliances. In 2013, residential energy consumption accounted for 37% of all energy use in America. Commercial energy use accounts for 35%. Industrial energy use accounts for 27%. While personal actions can decrease your residential footprint, they wouldn’t affect the other 62% of energy usage. Instead of stressing personal energy efficiency, we should work to increase renewable energy.

Embracing renewable energy at all levels of government is one way forward. Through de-subsidizing fossil fuels, we would reduce energy usage and help the environment.

What can I do to help climate change?

Even though our individual habits don’t contribute much, there’s other steps to take. Many people still want to know how they can help tackle climate change. There are many ways to contribute to this fight. Take part in whatever ways you feel comfortable.

Understand the Systemic Aspect

The first step is to understand the systemic problems. You should see the push for personal accountability for what it is – a marketing tactic. Instead of focusing on the ways we each contribute to global climate change, we need to look at the largest offenders. In other words, don’t shame yourself for eating meat. Get upset at the factory farm industry which insists on polluting to save money.

Don’t lose hope

Even though the systemic reality of climate change is daunting, we can’t let fear paralyze us. Thinking that “it’s too late” or that “nothing I do matters” keeps us from acting. Powerful polluters use these ideas to weaken the environmental movement. They try to keep people from acting. Hopelessness and dread keep us from achieving positive change.

Listen to the movement

The revolutionary environmental movement recognizes the systemic nature of the problem. Climate activists like Greta Thunberg, Ineza Umuhoza Grace, Vanessa Nakte, and many others advocate for systemic solutions. Listen to activists, community leaders, and affected people about what they need and what systems are affecting them.

Take Action with Dogwood Alliance

You can help Dogwood Alliance protect forests and communities while fighting climate change. Get involved. There are different campaigns you can help with including limiting the biomass industry, advocating for community justice, and more. So take action today!

michelle thompson 2022 internMichelle Thompson

Michelle is Dogwood’s 2022 Forests & Climate Stanback Research Fellow. She has been interested in nature and conservation since growing up in upstate South Carolina. She is a masters student at Duke studying ecosystem science and conservation. Michelle is honored to continue her work in environmentalism at Dogwood over the summer and is excited by the opportunity to work with her community. In her free time, Michelle enjoys crafting, reading, and hanging out with her two cats.

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