Environmental alignment: How much does what YOU do matter?
It’s a debate, for sure. What’s the practical utility of individual lifestyle change and its value in fighting climate change and our other most serious environmental issues? In fact, it matters… a lot.
Sure, the percentage of United States residents who consider themselves environmentalists is low (and declining) – according to a Gallup poll, it was 42% in 2016, down from 78% in 1991. And, even among those stated environmentalists, many commute distances to work by car, use a range of questionable products that allow them to get culturally typical tasks done more easily, and in other ways fail the litmus test of “bright green living”. This means that the overall efficacy even of those who care deeply is limited. We fear that the results of all our own efforts, from switching to cloth diapers to bringing our own bags to the supermarket, are not overwhelming. Add the troubling reality that being environmentally proactive in the Western culture is in some ways a luxury – e.g. it costs more to live sustainably than not, unless one is living off the grid at low cost, which is atypical. The image of the wealthy white woman biking or driving a Tesla to the organic market, buying untainted produce and placing it in reusable bags is more than a stereotype.
Nevertheless, let’s argue that’s there is more to the story than putting the thumb on the government and corporations to change their ways while we all continue to fly and drive casually, discard plastic, and buy mountains of stuff. I’ll argue that we, too, to the best of our individual and collective ability, need to smarten up and take responsibility for this planet.
-Key behavioral changes do add up, in terms of actual environmental impact: here are a few of the most impactful.
A 2017 study from Lund University measured the relative effectiveness of various sustainability practices. According to the study’s lead author, Seth Wynes, “We found there are four actions that could result in substantial decreases in an individual’s carbon footprint: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car free, and having smaller families. For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tons of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tons of CO2 equivalent a year.”
So, even the simple choice to live in the city, without a car, rather than in the greener-looking suburbs, driving everywhere, reduces one’s carbon footprint significantly.
Among the choices of impact for people in the developed world, choosing not to reproduce, or having fewer children than planned, makes the most difference for our planet, and little wonder. Every one of us is eating, using fuel and consuming everything from plastic bags to car or jet fuel.
Keeping our water clean is another way every individual can help. For example, any individual’s or community’s complete abstinence from the use of toxic herbicides such as glyosphate (e.g. Roundup) avoids adding that much more persistent poison to waterways, and also assures one is not contributing to the increasing number of “superweeds” that are completely impervious to herbicides.
-Individuals who are on the leading edge of change are influencers and others tend to follow.
It’s possible to be part of, or even a leader at, creating a tipping point; that is, the nexus at which a lifestyle habit or viewpoint you are modeling influences others to make the same change.
For example, GlobalData says the number of U.S. consumers who identify as vegan grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017. Other data point to increasing interest in plant-based foods among non-vegetarian/non-vegan consumers. A tipping point may be on its way, at which a significant minority of people define their diets more as “flexitarian”, vegetarian or vegan than as more carnivorous or omnivorous.
According to a 2018 survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times, among the increasing number of younger Americans deciding to have fewer children than they considered ideal, 33 percent cited concerns about climate change as one reason behind that decision. One woman who had decided not to have children said, “Now we know we have a choice.” In other words, the choice not to reproduce, or to have just one child, seems more acceptable after a tipping point has occurred in a particular demographic.
These are just examples of the way in which individuals’ actions can inspire other individuals to do the same.
-When fewer people buy or use particular products or services, and turn instead to new habits, the marketplace listens.
With an increasing number of consumers demanding alternatives to single-use plastic, food manufacturers, among others, are beginning to respond. According to an article in FOODnavigator-USA.com, “Consumer push-back against plastic will spur manufacturers to seek new packaging in 2019.” Trader Joe’s has moved into a leadership position by taking the following (and additional) steps toward sustainable packaging: The company stopped offering single-use plastic carryout bags, replaced plastic produce bags with biodegradable & compostable produce bags, and eliminated Styrofoam packages in the produce section, replacing them with bio-based, compostable trays. Other companies are or will follow.
Plastic use is just one example. According to a CNN Business report, companies including Unilever, Patagonia and even Nestle have taken the lead in combating climate change with a wide variety of changes and initiatives.
-Bottom-up action matters because that’s how societal change often happens.
With many societal shifts, from civil rights to women’s and LGBTQ rights, legalization of marijuana and more, it’s the people who force the elected officials and the corporations to change their ways, not the other way around.
Right now, world and national governments vary in their responses to climate change, with the United States administration currently on a dangerous trajectory away from environmental sustainability even as many other nations strive to beat the clock on baked-in temperature increases around the planet.
Meanwhile, some U.S. state and local governments, which are in some ways closer to the people they serve than their federal counterpart, are stepping up on their own. By demanding sustainability and environmentally prudent policies, consumers who align their beliefs with their actions push the issues forward.
-Finally, it’s the right thing to do.
Even if and as we look to technology and engineering to help mitigate (and also adapt to) climate change and related serious environmental problems, walking the walk is important to the soul of the environmentalist’s endeavor. However humans shape our overall response to climate change, we already know that burning fossil fuels willy-nilly, creating waste at alarming rates and poisoning the planet are foolish moves long-term, so we are wise to get cracking now at developing new, smarter ways to live.