Updated: May 22, 2020
Harry and Bob debate whether individual action to fight climate change is a distraction.
If you stop using plastic straws it isn’t going to save the environment. It can only be saved by global policy change and governmental action. Beyond that, say some, efforts to change lifestyle to help the environment can actually cause us to lose sight of the things we really need to accomplish. So, quit looking the wrong way and wasting critical time and energy. Focus on the things that matter.
Here’s what I say. We have forgotten what it takes to produce enduring social and political change, what it means to be an environmentalist, and why those two are inexorably linked. We have forgotten our history on the one hand and the obligations of environmental stewardship on the other.
In 1971 my wife Judy and I went to Washington DC to visit our friends Harry and Loretta Strharsky and demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. That didn’t happen just because Harry gave us a call and said, “Hey! You guys want to come down here this weekend, do some demonstrating and get arrested in front of the White House?” “Hell yes! That sounds like fun!” Actually, it was a much longer journey than that. It was a conditioning. It was a series of individual actions that led to our ability to confront the White House police. It took years. It was a friend telling me why he was against the war. It was getting dragged along to hear Martin Luther King Jr give a talk. it was reading an article or two. It was being forced to argue against the morality of the war in a High School public debate. It was watching young men die on the 5:30 nightly news. It was stuffing envelopes with flyers against the war. It was finding myself hanging out with a group of weird activists. It was arguing with my Dad. Finally, I got angry. This is wrong. We have to act. I was ready and so were millions of others.
A tree without deep roots is the first to go down in a storm
We were travelers in a grassroots movement. It was the same kind of movement that powered the civil rights, gender equity, and prohibition causes. It’s the same kind of movement that is advancing the cause of environmental sustainability. What many are forgetting is you can’t skip the first step and expect enduring social change.
“Education is the backbone of any grassroots campaign as people cannot participate in something that they do not understand. It is important therefore to raise awareness of an issue and to communicate effectively why it is such a concern. A higher level of visibility garners more support, and information is power for followers who want to be able to advocate for themselves, increasing the collective impact of the group.”
It takes time and patience. First you must find out where people live, what they believe and what they are willing to do. Everyone is in a different place, but it is unlikely that chaining yourself to the White House gates would be their first step. The grassroots organizer is there to suggest a thousand first steps. Each step empowers.
The movie “Norma Rae” is a perfect example. Norma shut the factory down with one magnificent act of resistance but that wasn’t what the movie was about. It was about her journey to get to that point. It was about all the questions she had to have answered and how she found control over her life by accomplishing one small task after another.
Behavioral contagion is a force
There is another argument that individual acts on behalf of the environment may actually have a negative effect. It’s called the “Prius Effect”. We buy a hybrid car which makes us feel better, but which may not be the best ecological use of our time and money. Buying a cheaper car with good mileage and using the difference to buy carbon offsets might have been the better choice. In addition, some Prius owners may actually drive more since they have so much better mileage and still feel good about it.
People, however, do not make decisions based on economic modeling. There is an emotional and social aspect to consider. In an article published in the Washington Post, Robert H. Frank of Cornell University addresses whether individual social action on behalf of the environment is an undesirable distraction.
“Behavioral contagion — social scientists’ term for how ideas and behaviors can spread through populations like infectious diseases — has changed my view. The environmental impact of seemingly insignificant voluntary actions is far greater than most people realize, for two related reasons. First, they have the power to shift how the people around us behave. Second, and more important, they change who we are, making us much more likely to support the large-scale policies needed for progress. Conscious consumption alone certainly can’t stop the warming threat, but it’s an essential step on our path forward.”
In 2005 I bought my first Prius. The day I drove it to work I was inundated with questions about how much it cost, how it worked, how much money would it save and how far I could drive in it. I had become an environmental educator. It wasn’t too long before a couple other hybrids showed up in the parking lot.
The necessary majority - Where does it come from and what's the next step?
If activism was all we needed there would be no Keystone Pipeline. If all we needed was majority opinion there would be meaningful gun control. Political solutions result when the two are aligned and that’s because political will isn’t derived from principle or conviction. It is driven into the light by the fear of lost power. Politicians act in their own best interests and getting reelected is top of the list. So then, a majority is needed to effect change.
In 2016, although 60% of voters thought more needed to be done about climate change, it was listed as the 12th most important election issue. Nor was there a significant voter block that could swing the election as occurred when Prohibition was passed. Consequently, politicians not only didn’t do anything about it, they didn’t even talk about it. What for? This was true even though climate change activists demonstrated across the country.
Recent polls list climate change as the 5th most important issue. In addition, it is a top issue for an important voting block – the young voter both democrat and republican. Is it any wonder then, that the Republican Party is starting to address climate change with plans and legislation of their own – anemic as they are?
Mother Nature had a lot to do with this jump. Relentless fire, flood, heat and catastrophic storms get your attention. Fortunately, that is not the only force at work. Young people are waking to up around the world and are rightfully worried. In addition, environmental organizations and Charismatic leaders are pushing us and channeling emerging energy. Finally, the preponderance of climate change evidence has moved more of people to accept reality.
Indeed, most people now believe that climate change is occurring, that we are causing it and that its threat is existential. However, just because people have become believers doesn’t mean they are activists. In fact, they aren’t.
“Nearly half of US adults under the age of 35 say stress about climate change affects their lives, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. Among all adults, seven in 10 say they wish they could do more to combat climate change, but 51% say they don’t know where to start.”
Cristiana Figueres, the United Nations top climate negotiator and architect of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, has an answer. “We would say what makes you feel better quickly is actually to engage in a positive contribution so that you bust through this myth that individual actions don’t count and you begin to realize the world is only made out of individual actions,” she said. “It does count. It does add up.”
Making a majority of believers into doers is the next step. There are 10,001 ways to get in gear. Find one and then another. Keep moving. Keep learning.
How a majority of doers can influence public policy
The “Overton Window” theory was formulated by Joseph Overton. It simply says that politicians do not consider solutions to problems that aren’t acceptable to the mainstream voting public. There may be 200 possible legislative actions one could take to solve a problem. They are all behind a window. The window is partially open revealing 20 of these solutions that are palatable to the general public. These are solutions that have a chance of being legislated. Not until the window of public acceptance is opened further will more options become available.
That’s where polls come into play. Saying politicians aren’t responsive to polls is like suggesting the Popes don’t have a fetish for fancy headgear. Polls help to push the window open or pull it closed because they identify solutions that are both acceptable and important to mainstream voters.
Yet, polls are not expressions of activism. They are expressions of opinion. They may well be the opinion of people who are now convinced that something must be done about climate change but who have done very little about it themselves. Maybe they just recycle and use cloth shopping bags. Yet those simple individual acts have made them aware enough and engaged enough to change their opinion, influence a poll and push open the Overton window.
The same can be said about corporations. They have their own “polls”. Consumers are digitally dissected and measured in truly frightening ways. If they decide they don’t want plastic straws you can be sure there will be a wave of bamboo and metal straws, on market shelves before the sun sets. Last week for the first time we found plant-based meats along side the pork and beef in the supermarket meat cooler instead of hidden on a tiny rack in a small cooler in the back of the store. Who moved them there? Individual consumers buying the stuff one at a time but in ever increasing numbers. We made the transition from the horse to automobile in much the same way.
Stewardship is the key to our future
More fundamental to the environmental movement than civic engagement is a core idea that each of us needs to embrace if we are going to secure a sustainable future. We must become stewards of the earth. We must make the connection between global environmental degradation, climate justice, and the responsibility we have for our own personal space. Advocacy is not just a “public” demonstration, it’s a way of living.
If I walk into your home and there is no evidence of a struggle against consumerism and energy use and water conservation, then I would question your comittment to the environment. I would challenge a person who trumpets the call for the demise of Exxon Mobile and simultaneously shows disregard for the condition of his consumptive ways.
This isn’t about doing, its about becoming. We must all undergo a metamorphosis. We must learn to feel and sense what is harmful to our environment. It should become natural like breathing. Such awareness is transformative in the most fundamental sense. When it occurs then all things fall in place. Our use of plastics subsides. The amount of energy we burn falls off. We begin to purchase Fair Trade products. We are very careful about the chemicals we use. We start to ask, "Do I need that?" We eat differently. We become environmental voters. We demand change. We influence others. We demonstrate on the steps of the White House. All of this begins with the most insignificant of lifestyle changes.
The core challenge isn't to reverse the effects of climate change, it's to transform the humans who caused it. And, if the first step is avoiding the use of a plastic straw then it is the most important step of all.