In an era obsessed with buzzwords, what does it mean to be sustainable? Some might argue that sustainability is the relatively small, independent choice of ditching a plastic straw. Others see sustainability in the more systemic action of a city or company banning single-use plastics. Still others, thinking bigger, believe sustainability starts with imploring companies to cut their CO2 emissions through PR pressure, lobbying, and other measures. While any environmental consciousness is commendable, strategies that target individual choice must be coupled with larger scale collective action in order to create major, lasting change to salvage our planet.
The psychological impact of individual choice, as it relates to environmental sustainability efforts, is significant. Acting in a climate-conscious way, such as forgoing single-use plastics, changing to LED lightbulbs, or driving a hybrid vehicle, make people feel as though they are taking important action to combat climate change. This is the logic behind a certification such as bcorp; individuals theoretically have the opportunity to ‘vote’ with every purchase they make and support businesses that are both socially and environmentally conscious. Consequently, there exists great value in this type of certification, as it incentivizes consumers to think about their own environmental impact and the larger impact of the companies they purchase from. The value of making consumers feel empowered, and that they have something to contribute to the fight against climate change, cannot be overstated.
However, this approach becomes deeply problematic when consumers feel as though they are ‘doing enough’ and lose sight of the larger environmental picture. For example, the campaign against single-use plastics, especially plastic straws, has been widely publicized in the past year. Companies such as Starbucks are taking action to eliminate plastic straws, and the city of Seattle was quick to ban single-use plastic utensils and straws. This environmental activism is certainly a step in the right direction towards addressing the 8 million metric tons of plastic that end up in the ocean every year, but it is not enough: Straws only make up 0.025% of the plastic thrown in our oceans each year. While any action is certainly better than no action at all, addressing plastic straws without considering the larger picture of plastic waste saps the public appetite for change without getting to the root of the problem.
Individuals must channel their desire to affect change towards larger enemies, such as the handful of companies that are responsible for the overwhelming majority of global CO2 emissions. Indeed, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions. The single biggest emitter, standing at 14.3% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015, is China’s state producer of coal. American companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron also make the top 15. While both ExxonMobil and Chevron claim to be conscious of the environment, unless they slow their extraction rate of fossil fuels, there will be catastrophic consequences for our planet. Thus, in addition to trying to make a difference on a personal scale with actions such as changing one’s light bulbs, individuals must come together to hold these large emitters accountable and put pressure on these companies to invest in sustainable solutions.
All of this is easier said than done, as the benefits of collective action are much harder to achieve. It is much easier for individuals to conceptualize what is psychologically close, such reducing our personal plastic use, than it is to envision the long-term gains of reducing corporate greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, standing up against huge emitters requires leadership, organization, and far more effort than simple, individual actions such as turning off the lights when you leave the room. And of course, large emitters will not prioritize sustainability over profits without enormous public pressure or changes to national or international law. However, the unfortunate truth is that individual actions essentially amount to nothing if companies continue on their current trajectory.
To make matters more difficult, even if our society were to center its environmental efforts around the behavior of individuals, we would have to focus most heavily on the wealthy. The inequality in carbon consumption between the wealthy and the poor is striking; 49 percent of lifestyle CO2 emissions can be attributed to the richest 10 percent, while the poorest 50 percent are only responsible for about 10 percent of CO2 emissions. For example, the carbon footprint of a businessman who flies from New York to London every week is significantly larger than that of an American who has never taken a flight before. Just one flight from John F. Kennedy to London Heathrow generates 2.78 tons of CO2 per business class passenger. Thus, the individual choices of certain Americans, who have larger carbon footprints, impact the global environmental situation than others.
Another issue related to individual choice is that everyone must buy into it in order for the action to be effective. This challenge is often known as the tragedy of the commons, which occurs when individuals are selfishly wasteful with public goods, and ultimately deplete that resource, because no one is willing to give up self-interest for the general good since the resource is held in common, rather than owned by individuals. Our oceans will continue to be polluted as long as single-use plastics continue to exist. Transportation will continue to be a major polluter even if some people forgo owning a car. Environmental arguments that center around individual choice often ignore this aspect, pretending as though the actions of a few environmentally conscious citizens will compensate for the actions of a largely indifferent public. However, by focusing on larger emitters, we negate this problem. If these companies face mounting pressure to be more environmentally conscious, and work to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by even a few percent, that is already a major global change towards slowing global warming. This does not rely on every individual prioritizing the environment, as only a handful of companies would have to change their behavior in order to change our entire global environmental situation.
As a counterargument, we might think about what small steps do to spur people to action. Though something like using a reusable water bottle might not save the world, it certainly does make individuals more conscious about how their choices affect others. Micro-revolutions, which are small changes that make a big impact, are certainly changing the game in certain sectors of science, medicine, and technology. When people participate in a micro-revolution, like shunning single-use plastics, there is certainly a possibility that they will support and campaign for larger action in the future. While personal choices might seem tiny in the larger fight against climate change, perhaps they are effective gateways for getting the ball rolling on larger, systemic action.
Sustainability is a fraught topic, and experts disagree on the best way to fight climate change. While individuals actions that benefit the environment are certainly important and commendable, we will never be able to create the large-scale change we need through small, incremental changes. The best way that individuals can better the environmental situation is to advocate against companies that emit nearly all of our greenhouse gases, using our capacity for action to pressure institutions rather than make personal lifestyle changes. While it might feel good to ditch the straw, in the end, combating climate change is about more than what we can do on our own.
Photo: “Plastic Straws“