A New Generation Of Leaders Understands That Individual Actions Won’t Fix Our Environmental Problems

A New Generation Of Leaders Understands That Individual Actions Won’t Fix Our Environmental Problems

By defining environmental citizenship as responsible consumption, sustainability advocates downplay the need for mass action to catalyze structural change.

The media coverage of the Green New Deal, a plan unveiled by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress to overhaul the U.S. economy by investing in renewable energy and green jobs, focused as much on its reception as on its substance. Republicans panned it as socialism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mocked it. Many columnists, such as the New York Times’ David Brooks, criticized its heavy reliance on public spending and government-provided jobs. Other critics questioned the plan’s broad focus. What, they asked, did provision of medical care have to do with overhauling America’s energy network?

The casual observer could be forgiven for dismissing the plan and the response to it, especially because it has no chance of passing in the current Congress. But the plan is a sign of a larger shift in environmental thinking. There is a growing recognition of the need for structural changes to address the climate crisis and other serious environmental problems. An increasing number of influential office holders and thinkers are calling for policies that go far beyond mere tinkering. To overhaul our energy system and preserve threatened ecosystems, they recognize that we must aggressively disrupt the status quo.

The best part of the Green New Deal is its insistence on bold steps to slow climate change and develop an economy based on renewable energy. As its name suggests, the plan is predicated on the idea that individual behavioral change will not lead to sharp reductions in greenhouse emissions or deliver meaningful environmental progress in other areas. We must, its authors insist, overhaul our economy to meet our environmental responsibilities. Even those who question this premise should celebrate the plan’s audacious goals.

Other environmental thinkers echo this skepticism about behavioral change. David Wallace-Wells, author of a recent book on climate change, concludes, “The effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.” While Wallace-Wells may find fault with some aspects of the Green New Deal, including its silence regarding nuclear power, he enthusiastically endorses the need to think big.

We must focus our efforts not on changing our individual behavior but on far-reaching communal changes.

The emphasis on the need to overhaul our economic, technological and social systems is a welcome departure from the fixation with individual behavior that often dominates popular environmental discourse. The furor over use of plastic straws, which became a litmus test of environmental responsibility in some circles over the past couple of years, suggests the limitations of this preoccupation with individual action. Americans concerned about excessive use of plastic should worry much more about laws recently passed by several states that ban municipalities from imposing bans on plastic bag distribution in retail stores than about whether the diner at the next table is using a plastic straw. To make substantial environmental progress we must get beyond environmental narcissism — excessive concern about the consumption habits of ourselves and our family and friends. We must focus our efforts not on changing our individual behavior but on far-reaching communal changes.

Individual vs. Collective Action

Recent developments in St. Paul, Minnesota, suggest that this will be a challenge. In October 2018 the city implemented a new residential waste collection system. Under the old system, households contracted with a trash hauler of their choice. St. Paul was one of the largest cities in the United States to use this free-choice model. On many blocks, residents contracted with several hauling firms. The result was that trucks from multiple haulers plied the same alleys on different days, spewing exhaust and wearing down the road.

Fed up with this system, residents held forums throughout the city to solicit feedback on the existing system and ideas about alternatives. (Disclosure: I helped organize these forums.) These forums ultimately led to a state-sanctioned process under which St. Paul negotiated a contract with haulers that divided the city into zones so each neighborhood was assigned a single hauler. Although recent events have called the system — and the city’s response — into question, currently it works like this: No longer do several trucks a week come barreling down residents’ alleys. Instead, recycling and trash collection now occur on the same day, reducing emissions and truck traffic. Russ Stark, St. Paul’s chief resilience officer, estimated that switching to organized collection reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with garbage truck traffic by as much as 75%.

Ultimately, the most important thing that we can do as citizens is to change the systems that pollute the Earth.

As with any new system, there were complaints from various quarters. Some of the most vociferous criticism came from those who had previously shared bins with neighbors, a practice that, though technically illegal, was widespread. These bin-sharers argued that the new system, which required each household to pay for its own bin to fairly distribute operational costs, discouraged conservation and was unduly expensive.

Why, I wondered, would some of my neighbors dwell on the remote possibility that a sliver of households might produce more trash under the new system when, as a city, we were drastically slashing diesel emissions from garbage trucks? Couldn’t they see that this focus on individual behavior was misplaced next to the significant environmental benefits of putting an end to the parade of trucks?

Catalyze Structural Change

The desire to become a more ecologically responsible consumer and citizen is admirable, but it falls well short of the environmental change we need. Even as more Americans packed their groceries into reusable bags and toted their metal water bottles to the gym, Congress passed virtually no significant environmental legislation. By defining environmental citizenship as responsible consumption, sustainability advocates downplay the need for mass action to catalyze structural change. Fortunately, a new generation of leaders is unveiling a much more wide-ranging environmental agenda, as exemplified by the Green New Deal.

Of course, we should encourage personal environmental responsibility. Modifying our individual dietary, travel and consumption habits can lead to reduced pollution and better air quality, among other benefits. We should make these smaller improvements — but not at the expense of the much-needed focus on transformational environmental changes.

Ultimately, the most important thing that we can do as citizens is to change the systems that pollute the Earth. Those in the vanguard of the environmental revolution that we so desperately need will not spend their waking hours discussing the finer points of eschewing plastic straws. They will be pounding on the doors of their Congressional representatives to demand the wide-ranging changes that only government, directly or indirectly, can deliver.

About The Author

David Soll is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where he teaches history and environmental studies. He is the author of Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply. uwec.edu/profiles/solld/

This article originally appeared on Ensia

Related Books

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future

by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann
1786634295How climate change will affect our political theory—for better and worse. Despite the science and the summits, leading capitalist states have not achieved anything close to an adequate level of carbon mitigation. There is now simply no way to prevent the planet breaching the threshold of two degrees Celsius set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What are the likely political and economic outcomes of this? Where is the overheating world heading? Available On Amazon

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

by Jared Diamond
0316409138Adding a psychological dimension to the in-depth history, geography, biology, and anthropology that mark all of Diamond's books, Upheaval reveals factors influencing how both whole nations and individual people can respond to big challenges. The result is a book epic in scope, but also his most personal book yet. Available On Amazon

Global Commons, Domestic Decisions: The Comparative Politics of Climate Change

by Kathryn Harrison et al
0262514311Comparative case studies and analyses of the influence of domestic politics on countries' climate change policies and Kyoto ratification decisions. Climate change represents a “tragedy of the commons” on a global scale, requiring the cooperation of nations that do not necessarily put the Earth's well-being above their own national interests. And yet international efforts to address global warming have met with some success; the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized countries committed to reducing their collective emissions, took effect in 2005 (although without the participation of the United States). Available On Amazon

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

POLITICS

Evangelicals In Brazil See Abuse Of God's Earth As A Sin – But Will They Fight To Save The Amazon?
Evangelicals In Brazil See Abuse Of God's Earth As A Sin – But Will They Fight To Save The Amazon?
by Amy Erica Smith
When the Brazilian city of São Paulo abruptly went dark at midday on Aug. 19, there was talk of the Apocalypse – not…
Can The Paris Agreement On Climate Change Succeed Without The US?
Can The Paris Agreement On Climate Change Succeed Without The US?
by Henrik Selin
On Nov. 4, the Trump administration formally notified the United Nations that it planned to withdraw the U.S. from the…
Why Climate Is The Election Priority For The Uk
Why Climate Is The Election Priority For The Uk
by Paul Brown
Britain’s general election campaign is squarely focused on the UK leaving the EU. But persuasive voices say the climate…
Labor Can Tackle Climate Change While Creating Decent Jobs
by Sky News Australia
Labor MP Clare O'Neil says Anthony Albanese’s vision statement in Perth on Tuesday gave “so much encouragement about…
Trump Threatens To Pull Federal Aid For Devastating California Wildfires
by NBC News
As California recovers from devastating wildfires, President Trump lashed out at California Governor Newsom and…
How China's First Climate Striker Wants To Help Save The World
by DW News
Howey Ou is China's first climate striker. She joined the worldwide "Fridays for Future" climate protests four months…
Who’s Afraid Of Greta Thunberg?
Who’s Afraid Of Greta Thunberg?
by Svenja Blanke
The character of Greta Thunberg is part of a polarised global confrontation regarding climate change. Despite what her…
A New Generation Of Leaders Understands That Individual Actions Won’t Fix Our Environmental Problems
A New Generation Of Leaders Understands That Individual Actions Won’t Fix Our Environmental Problems
by David Soll
By defining environmental citizenship as responsible consumption, sustainability advocates downplay the need for mass…

LATEST VIDEOS

300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
by MSNBC
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…
Stanford Climate Solutions
by Stanford
Climate change has brought us to a defining moment in human history.
Buying Renewable Energy From Your Neighbor
by NBC News
Brooklyn Microgrid, a project of parent company LO3 Energy, is looking to disrupt the more than 100-year-old energy…
Debate Over Pipelines Clouds Concern For Climate Change
by Global News
Climate experts are warning that Canada shouldn't ignore the wildfire crisis in California
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Rice Bowl Of Malaysia Threatened By Climate Change
by The Star Online
Kedah is known as the country’s “Rice Bowl,” and it is especially suitable for the growing of the grain.
Maine Cow's Seaweed Diet Research Could Help Climate Change
by News Center Maine
Research in Maine will measure the methane released by cows who have been fed a seaweed diet.

LATEST ARTICLES

Why The Global Climate Treaty Is Not Working
Why The Global Climate Treaty Is Not Working
by Tim Radford
Three out of four nations have yet to start to honour the global climate treaty. The world waits, the seas go on rising…
Why Taxes Are Better Than Bans For Keeping Homeowners From Rebuilding In Fire-plagued Areas
Why Taxes Are Better Than Bans For Keeping Homeowners From Rebuilding In Fire-plagued Areas
by Alexander Smith
Almost 200,000 Californians have been ordered to evacuate as ferocious winds drove several wildfires near Los Angeles,…
How Will 20 Years Of Houston’s Growth Affect Flooding?
How Will 20 Years Of Houston’s Growth Affect Flooding?
by InnerSelf Staff
A new way to show exactly how much the city of Houston has changed in the last two decades gives a dramatic visual…
Why Australia Could Fall Apart Under Climate Change
Why Australia Could Fall Apart Under Climate Change
by Ross Garnaut
Four years ago in December 2015, every member of the United Nations met in Paris and agreed to hold global temperature…
How Greenhouse Gases Drive Australia's Bushfires
How Greenhouse Gases Drive Australia's Bushfires
by Andrew Burgess
Australia’s bushfires are feeding on heat from the climate change happening in the tropics, but its government doesn’t…
How Children Born Now Face Multiple Climate Health Risks
How Children Born Now Face Multiple Climate Health Risks
by Tim Radford
Multiple climate health risks threaten today’s babies. They may grow up hungrier, more diseased and facing more…
This Is What Australia's Growing Cities Need To Do To Avoid Running Dry
This Is What Australia's Growing Cities Need To Do To Avoid Running Dry
by Ian Wright
The increasing thirst of Australia’s biggest cities routinely exceeds our capacity to rely on rainfall for drinking…
Evangelicals In Brazil See Abuse Of God's Earth As A Sin – But Will They Fight To Save The Amazon?
Evangelicals In Brazil See Abuse Of God's Earth As A Sin – But Will They Fight To Save The Amazon?
by Amy Erica Smith
When the Brazilian city of São Paulo abruptly went dark at midday on Aug. 19, there was talk of the Apocalypse – not…