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Can individual action really impact the climate?

Did all those millions of people who took to the street last week to #strikeforclimateaction actually make a difference?

As someone who recently stopped eating meat, who only ever takes public transport, and who habitually yells at my co-workers that crisp packets can be recycled, I’m familiar with the feeling that my attempts to alleviate greenhouse emissions are pointless.

It’s hard to believe that your going for a lentil bake at Christmas over the delicious roast lamb your Aunt makes every year is going to make any difference in the face of big corporations and big government conspiring to mutually let one another off the hook for crimes against social justice.

And, as much as I hate to say it, we’re not wrong to feel that way. In the grand scheme of things, no, your adoption of veganism is not going to have a marketable difference on whether or not the world is able to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement.

It’s a dispiriting conclusion and begs an obvious question: why bother?

Passivity is the route that many choose to take in the face of climate change. The destructive impacts of the climate crisis are now following the trajectory of that economics maxim as horrors long predicted by scientists are becoming realities.

More destructive category five hurricanes are developing, monster fires ignite and burn on every continent but Antarctica, ice is melting in large amounts there and in Greenland, and rising sea-levels now threaten low-lying cities and island nations. But none of this is your fault, and it’s not like you work for big oil and are directly contributing to the problem, so bore off and let you watch Holby City in peace. You didn’t light the fire (it was always burning), so it shouldn’t be your job to put it out.

Worse still than these passive onlookers are what I like to call ‘climate nihilists’. Those who seem to take pleasure in pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of vegans with iPhones (don’t you know the gold parts of your phone were made in inhumane factories in China that produce XXX carbon emissions per individual part?!).

These people use the hopelessness of individual action as an argument to do nothing, but at least, they argue, it’s an informed doing of nothing. Think of their attitude as equivalent to the shrinking but still prevalent subsection of the vegan community who insist that vegetarians and all those who don’t go the full hog (pardon the pun) are morally inconsistent, thereby encouraging these people to go back to meat consumption out of spite.

Whilst it’s true that individual action in the face of a global problem is close to useless, it’s also the only morally justifiable course of action available to us.

Thinking of the climate issue like the trolley problem. Generations before us have seen our path of destruction hurtling towards a family of four, and not acted. Doing nothing is generally the surest way to avoid blame for an undesirable outcome.

Gen Z, on the other hand, have decided that inaction is a moral decision of its own. It’s now gotten to the point that simply living in a big city in the 21st century is actively harming the environment through an excess of CO2 emissions. And changing the course of the trolley won’t have any adverse effects besides harming big industries and making a lot of government officials fall out with heavy pocketed donors.

So, now imagine the trolley problem, but on your current set of tracks there’s a family of four and on the other there’s a giant pile of money. Do you pull the lever?

Of course you do.

Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University, a man described by the New Yorker as the ‘world’s most influential living philosopher’, compares failing to reduce your greenhouse emissions to taking a bulldozer and razing the crops of a subsistence farmer in Africa. If you did that everyone would agree it was wrong, but the greenhouse gases you are responsible for have the same effect, he argues.

Not to point fingers, but the Baby Boomers have essentially done the planetary equivalent of leaving one square of bog roll in the loo and then insisting it isn’t their turn to change it because they didn’t technically finish it. It’s an unattractive mantle that they’ve left us, but one we must pick up if we are to survive.

So, does that mean that we’re all just slaves to a doomed climate, recycling and protesting on deaf ears because otherwise we’re basically going pedal-to-the-metal behind the wheel of other people’s lives?

Not on your nelly. Enter Professor Kelly Fielding, a behavioural psychology from the University of Queensland, Australia. ‘What we know as social psychologists is that people are very influenced by what others do, even though we don’t think we are’, she explains. ‘It’s a paradox. We think we make our own decisions, but the truth is we look to others for guidance about how we should behave’.

In layman’s terms, this means that we have more influence than we might think. The more we talk about climate change, the more we protest, and the more we shove our disposable cups down people’s throats (gently now, gently) the more we change discourse.

As climate badass Greta Thunberg recently said to BBC reporter Justin Rowlatt, our actions are important not because they have a material effect, but because of the message they send to others. What you do influences your family and friends, and this in turn will (eventually) create the political space for governments and businesses to take action.

We’ve seen the movement from citizenry action to policy before. It happened in the civil and workers rights movements, in female suffrage, and in the independence movement of colonies like India. Peaceful protest does have an impact, and not just through appealing to the conscience of business owners but by changing the economic landscape.

It’s now profitable in the food industry to make meat-free options – a company making meant-free burgers was just valued at almost $4 billion USD. Moreover, according to the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance in 2019 solar and wind now provide the cheapest sources of new electricity in two-thirds of the world.

None of this would have happened if a conversation hadn’t started at a grass-roots level. Recently, the trillion-dollar Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) listed climate striking students the ‘greatest threat’ to the oil industry.

The possibility of a virtuous cycle has presented itself to us, unlikely as it may seem. And yes, this is an argument for us all to be a lot more optimistic about what can be achieved. The more action we all take, the less our climate will change and the more liveable the world will be for ourselves, our progeny, and all the rest of the abundance of life on earth.

It’s heartening to see Gen Z grab hold of this opportunity with such zeal, and we must ensure we never let go despite the pacifists and the nihilists. We do not wish to be inert at the wheel of the train while disaster approaches – it’s become our moral task to take action and to be active.

So, the next time you opt to swerve the plastic bag at the supermarket in favour of juggling your produce home, remember that you’re not necessarily trying to quantify the net amount of parts per million you’ve kept from the atmosphere, but are participating in a dialogue. One that seems to be working.

Bring on Christmas 2020, I say. I am immune to your delicious lamb.


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