When I was a kid, the cause I was most passionate about was climate change.
I remember putting together an awesome PowerPoint presentation for a Grade 9 social studies class. I lectured my class on why we should all care about climate change. I remember saying it’s not just an issue for one group of people or even people in general; it affects every living thing on Earth.
That presentation is probably in a dusty hard drive somewhere, but I remember being super proud of it. I got a good grade, and I had a lot of fun making it too, thinking I may have a future in graphic design. (And I’ve since held graphic design jobs, so yay.)
Climate change was an easy cause to get behind as a young person. Kids like playing outside and polar bears are cute. And whereas a cause like women’s reproductive rights can wade into complex philosophical territory, reciting scientific facts about the rise in global temperatures, melting sea ice, and natural disasters is comparatively simple.
Besides, climate change is something everyone can — and should — get behind. It affects people rich and poor in all the Earth’s hemispheres. And some reforms, such as re-using containers or choosing buses over cars may even save you money.
But if climate change is so straightforward, why haven’t the adults done anything successful to stop it yet?
From Idealism to Disillusionment
I think a lot of us start out as climate idealists when we’re young. We pick up litter, we recycle, we take the bus, and we tell our parents to eat less meat. But at some point, we get tired. Scrubbing out your take-out containers to recycle them takes up time better spent on finishing that essay due tomorrow. Taking the bus to work means waking up early, which sucks. And hey, meat tastes good after a long day at the office.
Besides, does my choosing oat milk over dairy—and shelling out the extra two dollars to do so—really do anything? Recycling is a conspiracy and fast fashion looks good. Teslas are expensive and Elon Musk can be a jerk sometimes. The real change should come from corporations and governments, not individual actions that scarcely make a blip in the fight against climate change.
Besides, there are more rewarding causes to get behind. Causes where we’ve made actual progress. The LGBTQ+ movement is one such cause that I’ve fallen in love with, not just because I identify as queer myself. In just the span of ten-ish years, I’ve seen queerness progress from being a fringe, stigmatized identity to a mainstream one (at least in the Western country I live in). When I was a pre-teen, being queer was something you hide. By the time I graduated university, being queer has become almost humdrum, as normal as normal can be. Perhaps even cool.
Of course, there’s still a lot we need to do to advance queer acceptance. I’m excited for what the trans rights movement will accomplish in the next few decades. And there are causes that I thought were done with that are now regressing (ahem, Texas abortion ban).
But anyway. Back to climate change. One of my earliest memories of climate change was watching The Inconvenient Truth. That was 2006. A decade and a half later, I haven’t seen much change.
Climate Change: Individual Responsibility or Collective Action?
Kurzgesagt recently published a video on this very subject.
It’s a little disillusioning, yeah? We can recycle all our containers, abstain from meat, and walk everywhere…and through all that sacrifice will we even nudge the needle? Meanwhile, the entities that can move the needle — corporations, governments, the 1% — don’t seem particularly enthused to do anything drastic anytime soon.
It’s easy, then, to just give up.
You can measure a person’s impact, but there would be a lot of digits behind the zero in terms of percent of global emissions attributable to or savable by an individual.
- Richard Heede, the co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute
But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to give up just yet. And if you’re reading this, I don’t think you’re ready to give up yet either. Besides, I think there is more attention on climate change than ever before. When I was a kid putting together my social studies project, climate change was something you only saw or heard about in the corner of newspapers. Today, I see climate change on the news nearly every day.
The companies may have some responsibility for their product — for lobbying in favor of the carbon economy, and for getting subsidies and arguing for subsidies — but some responsibility ought to fall on individuals, households, and corporations. What the companies do is produce the fuels, extract and market the fuels, so that we can use them. It’s the consumers that produce the carbon dioxide: They may be corporations, airlines, shipping lines, households, utilities.
— Richard Heede again, further down the conversation
So, what can a person who cares about the environment but feels helpless, do?
I’ve created a (flawed, but done best as I can) personal manifesto.
A Personal Manifesto for Fighting Climate Change
First, reframe the issue (if you haven’t already).
Environmentalism isn’t an idealistic cause for naïve students or anarchist hippies; it is a serious issue worthy of scientific study, political attention, and academic analysis, and it should be front-and-centre for voting-age people. Worrying about the environment isn’t a nebulous, macro-level worry that makes you too head-in-the-clouds. The environment affects the day-to-day of every single human being, rich or poor, and every single living organism. It is not too “lofty” of a concern.
Decide to be on the right side of history.
There is no perfect way to fight. Systemic change is the best way to move the needle, but as an individual, I’d encourage you to think like this: what can I do to make sure I end up on the right side of history? Could I tell my descendants that, at the very least, I did my part?
It’s so easy to give up, to say there’s no use in fighting anyway. But if that’s something you’ll regret on your deathbed, make a conscious commitment to fight the good fight or die trying.
Instead of a list of commandments, adopt a systemic way of thinking.
You can’t always be perfect, but you can always be better. Practically speaking, think of fighting climate change not as a list of commandments but as a systemic way of thinking. If I want to buy a book, what’s the best way to buy a book without harming the planet? Should I download an ebook, thus eliminating the need for paper? Should I buy second-hand, thus not creating more waste? What if I buy from a local bookstore I can access via public transit instead of ordering online from a store a hundred miles away, where the book will have to be flown to me? You can’t be perfect in every buying decision you make, but you can be more intentional in your decisions.
I love hating on the oil and gas industry as much as the next environmentalist, but for families whose livelihoods depend on said industry, destroying it is a real concern that shouldn’t be laughed off. After all, when my family’s health was threatened with Covid, I, too, did some very climate-unfriendly things, such as using things once and then throwing it away for sake of sanitation.
Yelling at people and guilting them doesn’t fix anything, but holding the capitalist systems responsible for threatening people’s livelihoods can. Not everyone will be able to be as heroic as you are, and while encouraging everyone to take responsibility is okay, there are boundaries. Yelling at people, guilting them, or forcing information down their throats probably won’t reform them. Having gentle conversations may.
Caring for the climate means caring for other stuff.
Climate justice is inextricable from other forms of social justice. A climate justice fighter could, and should, fight other forms of inequality, because winning these fights will directly support the climate cause. Why? Because equality empowers more people from all walks of life to use the time, effort, and know-how to do their part for climate change.
So don’t just march for climate change. March for racial justice, women’s autonomy, and wealth equity. And keep marching. If not for you, for future generations.
And if it all goes kaput, well, at least you tried.
- Can consumer choices ward off the worst effects of climate change? An expert explains. Both the powers and limitations of individual climate action. TL;DR—it’s still worth it.
- Climate change: The environmental disasters we’ve almost fixed. It may help to read about the successes we’ve already won. If we’ve done it before, surely we can do it again?
- What COVID-19 teaches us about “the individual versus collective action debate” in climate policy. The lessons we’ve learned throughout the pandemic.
- Yes, Actually, Individual Responsibility Is Essential to Solving the Climate Crisis. The case for reinstating personal responsibility.
Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel forthcoming with Annick Press. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.