There is no recycling station in my dorm.
Rain or shine, hot or cold, I schlep my plastic containers, paper bags, and cardboard boxes to the nearest recycling room. Sometimes this means epic embarrassment as I flail under a tower of fifteen boxes recently filled with food and random necessities sent from home. More often, it means that I am willing to give the tourists a good show in order to do my part in mitigating climate change.
If I didn’t recycle my 15 cardboard boxes, would it really make a difference? Gernot Wagner, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, doesn’t think so. He recently wrote in The New York Times: “The changes necessary [to stop global warming] are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action. Individual action...distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough.”
Can this be true? Are individual actions futile? Am I wasting time schlepping?
Absolutely not! Wagner’s argument is dangerously incomplete, and individual actions are essential to creating bottom-up pressure for institutional change. Wagner writes: “Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet.” And in some ways, this is true: Governments must, after all, enact serious green legislation to cap CO2 emissions and reduce global warming. Corporations must integrate sustainability into their production processes, supply chains, and administration. Without these reforms, large-scale global change will be difficult if not impossible. But governments and corporations will only restructure if they know their supporters and shareholders are calling for change.
Individuals must join together in action to communicate their demands to governments and businesses. Historical civil rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights movements were effective and powerful because thousands of individuals used their voices to demand institutional transformation. American consumers called for change and voiced their outrage collectively in 2009 by boycotting lead-painted toys from China. This created new markets for environmentally friendly toys, as concerned parents utilized their buying power in a demonstration of bottom-up activism.
When this kind of bottom-up support exists, top-down mandates are effective in the long run. The two go hand-in-hand. Even if Congress mandates that all homes use LED light bulbs, individuals must make the decision to buy these light bulbs and install them. No policy can be effective without their conscious participation.
It is the aggregation of individual behaviors that produces collective action. Some people don’t vote because they think that their vote won’t make a difference—but if everyone thought this way, where would democracy be? The same principle applies to the environmental movement. If we refrain from individual action for fear that it won’t make a difference, this prophecy will come true. Change can only occur if each of us believes in individual power and acts accordingly. For example, the average American consumes seven trees worth of paper or wood products each year. Yet 25 million trees would be spared if every American recycled just ten percent of their newspapers.
Finally, individual actions matter because climate change affects individual lives. Floods in Oklahoma, the hottest summer on record in Texas, the increasing intensity of storms, rising ocean temperatures, wildfires—the list of climate-change-induced catastrophes goes on and on. Billions of individuals need to understand how their lives are threatened by humanity’s current path, support green legislation, and rally for sustainable products.
Public education initiatives will enable individuals to understand how climate change affects their lives and what they can do about it. The UK Climate Impacts Programme works with the government to institute adaption policies and public education programs. One case study focuses on helping a community in Northern England adapt to severe floods caused by climate change. Community members understand how they are being affected. They are willing to change their behaviors because it’s personal. The force for bottom-up change unleashed by this kind of education is at least as powerful as top-down mandates.
The green movement is about societal transformation as well as changing the way we think about our lives and the natural world. None of this can be accomplished without individual support and engagement. Our voices coalesce into demands for change. Our actions demonstrate commitment. When we take hold of our existence and utilize our individual power, we can each make a difference—one box at a time.
Chloe S. Maxmin ’15 lives in Wigglesworth House.