Why should individuals refashion their lifestyles to cut down on emissions when the real battlefield is the political arena? Critics say environmentalists focus too much on personal choices rather than fighting for systemic change. Paul Hockenos says he’s on board with the larger goal, but there are valid reasons to start decarbonizing at home.
At first glance, assuming personal responsibility for climate change – and acting upon it by bending over backwards to trim one’s own carbon footprint – might appear pointless.
It can even be an excuse to do nothing at all. After all, the carbon footprint of one person constitutes an ultimately meaningless fraction when measured against the 37 billion tons of CO2 emitted yearly. The average EU resident emits 7 tons a year, an American 16 tons. Thus shrinking one’s own footprint by going vegan, forswearing air travel, or paying for green electricity won’t change much of anything in terms of total emissions. Even a movement of millions doing the same won’t reduce greenhouse gases anywhere near enough to hit climate targets.
But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t take personal action! Never before has the personal been so political as it is in the epoch of global warming.
Of course, it’s the world’s legislatures – the national and supranational – where the fight against Earth’s warming will be lost or won. The imperative according to the 2018 IPCC special report, which issued a dire warning against exceeding a 1.5 Celsius degree rise in temperature, is that “policymakers and practitioners” respond with radical action to brake carbon emissions.
The school-striking Friday students explicitly direct their demands to our political class, and not consumers, because they grasp that smart policies across the globe, such as legislation for a significant, all-sector carbon tax, will prompt a shift in our petroleum-addicted economies.
First and foremost, the imperative must be to act to influence the political level. We as citizens of democracies in countries with sky-high greenhouse emissions can do something to fight climate change by casting our ballots for those parties serious about lowering emissions through clear-eyed polices. This is the minimal civic duty of anyone concerned about the climate crisis.
Beyond that, those with financial means can donate to parties and candidates, as well as the best of the environmental lobby groups. In the US, one goal should be to build up a lobby arm as powerful as the NRA’s muscular gun lobby.
As individuals we can also act politically by taking to the streets, as the young people of Fridays for Future, who are skipping school – and thus breaking the law — to protest the inadequate response of their elders. Some groups are taking civil disobedience further and blocking the streets as groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Germany’s Ende Gelände. We can engage in local politics to turn our towns and cities green (Transition Towns) and prod our institutions to divest from fossil fuels (350.org).
But lifestyle choices are political too, intensely so when it comes to the climate.
For one, since climate change and the transition to low-carbon economies will dramatically change our lives, we should proactively act shape that transformation — now, when it counts the most. Instead of waiting for the carbon pricing of jet fuel and meat, for example, we can start now on our own, by flying less and experimenting with low-carbon diets. We should push the process in a direction that we choose, not one chosen for us.
German sociologist Harald Welzer, founder of the think tank FuturZwei, argues that our post-carbon societies will be designed by citizens as we experiment with disparate, climate-compatible ways to live and eat and work and vacation. Germany’s phenomenal renewables revolution, we should remember, was kicked off from below: by a mishmash of activists, techies, and engaged scientists trying out ways to generate renewable energy and self-manage local energy grids.
That’s why we should embrace a wide-ranging project of open-ended experimentation – and have fun with it. Why not? Let’s set out together to discover where “less” in our lives can be “more.” Our ambition should be to devise alternatives that give us a high quality of life at as low as cost to the environment as possible.
Secondly, our consumption-driven market economies are fashioned by demand and the private sector responds to our choices as consumers. Say, for example, that boycotting plastic results in a 20 percent drop in sales of one traditionally plastic-packaged soft drink and increases sales of another soda brand bottled in biodegradable plant-based plastic. One would expect the soft drink sector to adjust by switching to the more popular option. Likewise, by purchasing new, climate-friendly, perhaps costly commodities, such as an electric car or rooftop solar-power systems, one helps those industries create economies of scale that will bring prices down.
Thirdly, for those involved in the climate movement, or just cheering from the sidelines, the nature of one’s personal choices affects the credibility of one’s arguments for urgent climate action. Observers – and I have talked with many people about it – put stock in whether activists, Green Party politicos, and even lay proponents practice what they preach.
Recently, a number of Green party politicians in Germany caught a hail of flak for posting on Facebook photos from New Years’ holiday jaunts to places as faraway South Africa and Chile. Perhaps they’re being unfairly picked on – one of them traveled to South America with his family to visit in-laws – but the bad press hurts the cause. The Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has grasped the conundrum and now simply doesn’t fly.
In the same vein, original and sometimes tough lifestyle choices tend to impress and inspire others. If my Berlin office colleague Heinz can give up holidays in the Greek islands in exchange for vacation on the Baltic coast, then so can I. At the very least, I’ll think about why Heinz and Greta Thunberg are making these decisions.
Lastly, the choice of against-the-grain behavior is a protest in itself. It speaks loudly: “I do not accept the status quo and I’m doing it differently!” It cries out like a banner at a demonstration, but one wears it all the time.
As historian Timothy Snyder notes in his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, “Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are a kind of vote. … In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”
In the fracas over climate change, the ostensibly rigid boundaries between the personal and the political break down pretty quickly. There’s nothing futile about putting your lifestyle choices where your politics are.