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Day 28: Know that You Make a Difference
Are individual changes useless?
You’ve heard the following argument, perhaps not only in the media but also from friends and family who, like you, worry about the climate crisis.
Individual actions don’t matter. Only systemic change will make a difference.
Of course, in our attempts to mitigate our intertwined ecological crises, sound climate policy would, in one fell swoop, effect the kind of change we need—and we don’t have a lot of time. An end to trillions of dollars in yearly subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, for example, would end the burning of fossil fuels much sooner than, say, some of us switching to electric cars. But the two actions are not mutually exclusive. We can drive electric cars and push for climate policy. We can even call our senators to demand bold climate action while driving an electric car (just as long as we do it hands-free).
At the center of the acrimonious debate over individual action versus systemic changes is a false dilemma. Both are important and necessary. But this debate is increasingly being used to drive a wedge within the community of climate advocates. This is what's known as a wedge campaign, and it's nothing new. It has its origins in decades-old disinformation campaigns. — climate scientist Michael E Mann, The New Climate War
The problem with individual change arises when we rely on it alone, as fossil fuel interests have encouraged us to do. BP, for example, launched its carbon footprint calculator as a means to deflect responsibility. With a subdued public preoccupied with measuring our individual footprints, BP carries on with business as usual, unchecked.
The bottling industry, fast food and junk food companies mastered this technique decades ago. Their push to urge us to recycle more has to be the most successful greenwashing campaign of all time. Globally, Coca-Cola produces 3 million tons of plastic packaging every year, the equivalent of 200,000 plastic bottles per minute, while preaching the importance of “educating consumers about recycling and the potential for plastic bottles to become new plastic bottles” in this press release touting the company’s new bottle containing 20 percent recycled plastic and available in limited areas only.
We simply cannot recycle our way through these dizzying amounts of petrochemical-derived garbage. Coca-Cola could adopt its return and refill systems of old but why would it implement profit-eating programs when it can pollute for free?
Individual change can lead to collective change
Sometimes our individual actions create a ripple effect. In 2011, my daughter MK and I decided to go plastic-free. I had no idea where to start, so MK poked around online and found Beth Terry’s wonderful blog, My Plastic-Free Life. Following Beth’s example, we implemented changes in our home: switching to reusables for shopping, buying loose produce at the farmers’ market and making more simple staples from scratch. A few months later, MK began to write her blog. A few years later, I started mine. Both online and off, people have told MK and me that they made changes after reading our blogs, or started writing their own blogs, or opened zero-waste bulk stores or were spurred on to other kinds of action.
Beth Terry has impacted many others as well, including Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, founder of Plastic Free July. Rebecca writes in her book, Plastic Free, that in the early years when she and her colleagues pledged to go plastic-free every July, they found solutions to plastic dilemmas on Beth’s blog. Over 326 million people in 117 countries took part in Plastic Free July last year. That ripple became a tsunami.
An example of collective change adding up comes from my electricity provider, Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE), a Community Choice Energy (CCE) program, which provides my home with renewable electricity. (See Day 11 for more on switching to clean energy.) Overall we save money but do pay a small premium by choosing 100 percent renewable rather than 50 percent renewable, 50 percent carbon-free. Yesterday, SVCE emailed me its summary of the emissions and financial savings that resulted from clean energy powering my city last year.
Together, 61,400 individual households and businesses in Sunnyvale avoided over 161 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator (which is quite fun to play with), that equates to removing 15,963 cars from the road for a year. All SVCE communities combined avoided 575 million pounds of greenhouse gas, equivalent to 56,722 cars parked for a year.
Support from the community also enabled SVCE to pour $1.6 billion into 13 clean energy projects. This collective, made up of individuals, drives demand for more renewables, which further reduces greenhouse gases. Policy could implement similar changes all over the country. For now, individual cities are making the change. CCE agencies dot much of the Bay Area in addition to cities down south, such as Los Angeles and Ventura counties, Riverside, City of San Diego and Santa Barbara counties.
Science that backs up the you-make-a-difference argument
According to an analysis of Drawdown solutions, a scientifically validated list of the top available technologies and practices that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, “individual and household actions have the potential to produce roughly 25–30 percent of the total emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change” that would be caused by exceeding a global temperature rise of 1.5°C.
Drawdown has also compiled a list of the 20 most impactful actions for households and individuals living in high-income countries. I’ve included several of them in this 30-day newsletter: reduced food waste, plant-rich diet, reducing plastic, composting, greener transportation, going solar and electrification.
At this code-red-for-humanity stage, we need all hands on deck and should welcome all the changes people undertake. We can implement individual changes and work on systemic change simultaneously. We can do both and we need both. It’s not a question of either or. It’s the answer of both and.
Thank you very much for staying with me all the way to Day 28! I really appreciate it. Only two days to go!