Opinion: Individual actions won’t solve our environmental problems

Media coverage of the Green New Deal, a plan unveiled by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress to overhaul the U.S. economy by investing in renewable energy and green jobs, has focused as much on its reception than on its substance. Republicans called it socialism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scoffed. Many columnists, such as David Brooks of The New York Times, have criticized its heavy reliance on public spending and government-provided jobs. Other critics have questioned the overall direction of the plan. What, they asked, had the provision of medical care to do with the overhaul of America’s energy grid?

The casual observer could be forgiven for rejecting the plan and the response to it, especially since it has no chance of passing the current Congress. But the plan is a sign of a bigger shift in environmental thinking. There is growing recognition of the need for structural change to address the climate crisis and other serious environmental issues. A growing number of leaders and influential thinkers are calling for policies that go far beyond tinkering. To overhaul our energy system and preserve threatened ecosystems, they recognize that we must aggressively disrupt the status quo.

The best part of the Green New Deal is its insistence on bold action to slow climate change and grow an economy based on renewable energy. As its name suggests, the plan is based on the idea that changing individual behavior will not lead to deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or significant environmental progress in other areas. We must, its authors insist, reshape our economy to meet our environmental responsibilities. Even those who question this premise should celebrate the bold goals of the plan.

Other environmental thinkers echo this skepticism about behavior change. David Wallace-Wells, author of a recent book on climate change, concludes: “The effects of individual life choices are ultimately insignificant compared to what politics can achieve. While Wallace-Wells may be critical of some aspects of the Green New Deal, including its silence on nuclear power, he enthusiastically endorses the need to think big.

We must focus our efforts not on changing our individual behavior but on large-scale collective changes.

The emphasis on the need to overhaul our economic, technological and social systems is a welcome break from the fixation on individual behavior that often dominates popular environmental discourse. The furor over the use of plastic straws, which has become a litmus test of environmental responsibility in some circles over the past two years, suggests the limits of this preoccupation with individual action. Americans concerned about the excessive use of plastic should worry much more about laws recently passed by several states that prohibit municipalities from banning the distribution of plastic bags in retail stores than whether the restaurant at the table neighbor uses a plastic straw. To achieve substantial environmental progress, we must move beyond environmental narcissism – an overconcern about our consumption habits, those of our family and friends. We must focus our efforts not on changing our individual behavior but on large-scale collective changes.

Individual action versus collective action

Recent developments in St. Paul, Minnesota suggest that will be a challenge. In October 2018, the city implemented a new residential waste collection system. Under the old system, households contracted with a garbage carrier of their choice. St. Paul was one of the largest cities in the United States to use this free-choice model. On many blocks, residents have contracts with multiple transportation companies. The result was that trucks from multiple carriers crisscrossed the same aisles on different days, spitting out exhaust and wearing down the road.

Fed up with this system, residents have held forums across the city to solicit feedback on the existing system and ideas for alternatives. (Disclosure: I helped organize these forums.) These forums eventually led to a state-sanctioned process under which St. Paul negotiated a contract with carriers that divided the city into zones so that each neighborhood would is assigned a single carrier. Although recent events have called into question the system – and the city’s response – it currently works as follows: no longer several trucks a week coming down the streets of residents. Instead, recycling and garbage collection now happen on the same day, reducing emissions and truck traffic. Russ Stark, St. Paul’s director of resilience, estimated that switching to organized collection reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with garbage truck traffic by up to 75 percent.

Ultimately, the most important thing we can do as citizens is to change the systems that pollute the Earth.

As with any new system, there have been complaints from various quarters. Some of the loudest criticism came from those who had previously shared trash cans with neighbors, a practice that, although technically illegal, was widespread. These bin-sharers argued that the new system, which required each household to pay for its own bin in order to evenly distribute operating costs, discouraged conservation and was unduly costly.

Why, I wondered, would some of my neighbors dwell on the remote possibility of a small group of households producing more waste under the new system when, as a city, we were dramatically reducing diesel emissions from garbage trucks? Couldn’t they see that this focus on individual behavior was misplaced alongside the significant environmental benefits of stopping the parade of trucks?

Catalyze structural change

The drive to become a more environmentally responsible consumer and citizen is admirable, but it falls far short of the environmental change we need. Even as more Americans packed their groceries in reusable bags and took their metal water bottles to the gym, Congress passed virtually no meaningful environmental legislation. By defining environmental citizenship as responsible consumption, sustainability advocates minimize the need for mass action to catalyze structural change. Fortunately, a new generation of leaders is unveiling a much larger environmental agenda, as evidenced by the Green New Deal.

Of course, we should encourage personal environmental responsibility. Changing our individual eating, travel and consumption habits can lead to reduced pollution and better air quality, among other benefits. We should make these small improvements, but not at the expense of the much-needed focus on transformational environmental change.

Ultimately, the most important thing we can do as citizens is to change the systems that pollute the Earth. Those at the forefront of the environmental revolution we so desperately need won’t spend their waking hours discussing the intricacies of avoiding plastic straws. They will knock on the doors of their representatives in Congress demanding the far-reaching changes that only government, directly or indirectly, can bring about.

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