I have been thinking about the best way to write this for months, there are probably a good 5 half finished blog posts dedicated to this subject in my drafts folder.  I’ve decided not to get flowery or mince words.  I’m about to make the case that activism is the most important thing you can do to fight climate change, and that personal action is good, but just not enough.

Now, before anyone gets up in arms, I’m not making this case to suggest that your personal action is worthless.  As I’ve said before, every little bit helps.  I don’t want you to quit doing your personal actions that work for you.  What I do want is for you to stop obsessing about how to extend them, especially if extending them causes you a lot of stress or takes up a ton of time, energy, or resources that you could be dedicating to more effective means of combatting climate change, and that’s activism.

Lets take a minute to look at the top contributors to climate change (in no particular order), and see what is required to change them.

Burning coal for electricity

NL. Rotterdam. 15-11-2008 Greenpeace bezet de bouwplaats van de nieuwe kolencentrale op de Maasvlakte. 100 actievoerders uit 18 landen protesteren het hele weekend tegen energiebedrijf EON. foto: Greepeace/ Joël van Houdt

NL. Rotterdam. 15-11-2008
Greenpeace bezet de bouwplaats van de nieuwe kolencentrale op de Maasvlakte. 100 actievoerders uit 18 landen protesteren het hele weekend tegen energiebedrijf EON.
foto: Greepeace/ Joël van Houdt (caption from source)

Burning coal is by far the biggest source of man made Co2 emissions, responsible for up to a third of the Co2 emissions humans are spewing out into the atmosphere.  We can take some personal action to reduce this, of course.  We can make an effort to consume fewer consumer goods and/or buy less carbon intensive consumer goods, and keep our homes more efficient by living in smaller homes, turning off lights, running heat and ac less (or not at all), etc., etc.  The richest among us can do things like get solar panels or even work towards going entirely off grid.  But the reality is that not everyone is able to do all or much of this stuff due to financial or time constraints, and many more are simply unwilling to make a lifestyle change until there is something really rewarding in it for them, or until maintaining the old habits become more difficult than adopting the new.  And even if everyone did the most they possibly could, we’d still be no where near addressing the monster that is our dependence on burning coal for fuel.  It doesn’t address all the government buildings, businesses, hospitals, infrastructure like traffic lights and irrigation systems, and all the other things that individuals do not have control over.  In order to get us off coal, we need to make major infrastructure changes, to include shutting down coal fired power plants, redesigning our electrical grid, building up more alternative energy sources, investing in further research and development, and plenty more large scale infrastructure projects that no individual can remotely begin to take on on their own.  You can’t exactly walk out your front door with a hammer and a screwdriver and start building a new electrical grid, can you?  The only way to address these issues is by demanding your government prioritize it.

The only way to really address burning coal for electricity is through activism.


Everyone knows transportation is a major problem.  I’d be willing to bet that the burning of oil (or, for those ignorant of the climate issue, the existence of oil) in cars is the first thing to come to mind when people think about climate change.  Justifiably so.  Transportation, particularly the kind that runs off of gasoline such as cars, trucks, and planes, are responsible for about 15% of climate warming emissions.  But even if you decided to trade your car in for a bicycle and never fly again, realistically you’re going to have to buy something that was shipped at some point.  And even if everyone in the world wanted to give up their car and go the bike route like you, we’ve discussed how this simply isn’t possible for a large segment of the population no matter how much they may want to.  And don’t get me started on the cost prohibitiveness of electric vehicles, which really aren’t a solution either until that top issue is addressed.  So what are we to do?  We need to advocate for infrastructure changes, once again.  We need safe roads with sidewalks and bike lanes.  We need denser urban and suburban development to better support public transit and walkable communities.  We need better access to various forms of alternative transit.  We need an employer culture where alternative transit, whether it be public transportation, walking, biking, or riding a freaking segway, is considered to be a reliable means of transportation to work.  The only way to get this stuff is to demand your government prioritize it.

The only way to really address our transportation problems is through activism

Industrial use of fossil fuels

Industrial use of fossil fuels gets mainly tied into these other two categories, it’s manufacturing, shipping, and selling consumer goods.  In fact, if we were to just isolate the industry contributions from those top two categories, the contributions to climate change made by industries far outweighs the contributions made by all the individual people in the world.  The thing is, we’re still kind of a part of this, because ultimately these industries are using that fossil fuel to create consumer goods, that we demand and buy.  We can totally reduce the amount we buy.  We can do things like buy used, repair what’s broken, grow our own food, and buy things from companies that use less fossil fuels.  But ultimately, short of going completely off grid, there is no way any of us can eliminate all of our consumer purchasing (I’m skeptical that anyone off grid is really completely eliminating it).  Sometimes you just have to buy stuff.  If nothing else, you need food.  Companies in our society do have the power to make some pretty massive changes to how they power their manufacturing, but very few do without incentive in the form of customer demand, so in that way, choosing how we spend our dollars is a form of activism.  The problem with depending on that form of activism entirely is that the amount of impact it makes is dependent on how many dollars you have, and most of us just don’t have the kind of buying power we need to make a significant difference.  Companies need some other incentive to make changes.  This is where more collective activism comes in again.  We can force companies to make changes on a massive scale if we set in place infrastructure changes and regulations that make it impossible for them to do business in carbon intensive ways.  We can back them into a corner where they are forced to use their dollar power to innovate new ways to get their products to market.  But we can’t do it by leveraging our wallets alone.

The only way to really change industry standards is through activism

Food production

Now here’s where I think individual action really shines!  Food production accounts for about as much fossil fuels as transportation does, so that’s a really huge chunk, and it’s a chunk that we as individuals can make a pretty big dent in.  Actions like wasting less food and eating less meat are within reach for most of us, and things like buying local and growing your own, while available to fewer, are still available to a significant number with relative ease.  But there’s still a place for activism here.  Those who are unable to access these options are unable due mainly to the lack of financial and physical resources to get the kind of food they need, and those who don’t know about why these choices are beneficial for them could benefit from a widespread educational campaign and a shift in cultural attitude surrounding how we eat (if we can manufacture diet culture, we can manufacture sustainable food culture).  Activism is probably the most effective way to address issues like low wages, lack of access to quality education, food deserts, hunger, and cultural attitudes over dietary choices.

Although personal action goes a long way in improving the sustainability of food production, activism is still crucial for making a complete shift that is equitable for all

As you can see, some of the most crucial changes that need to be made can really only be addressed by convincing our government to orchestrate major infrastructural changes, and doing that requires activism.

So, is all personal action worthless?

Well, not all of it.  But it can be problematic.  Yes, I’ve argued that putting my own drop in a bucket is worth while, and I do believe that.  But when the idea of personal actions is pushed too heavily, I worry that it really takes the focus off of what actually needs to happen to make the kind of changes we need to see happen asap.  For me, personal action is great, but it’s usefulness ends where the time and resources necessary to pursue it cut into time and resources I could be using to do activism.  If you are working an extra 15 hours a week so that you can afford an electric vehicle and solar panels, that time and energy is probably much better used dedicated to activism.  Furthermore, when industries emphasize what you need to do to your own habits to mitigate climate change, particularly through buying something, what it really does is distract us from who is really doing the most damage to the climate (the industries themselves) and allows them to avoid taking responsibility for and facing the consequences of their impact on global climate, all while managing to further exploit our labor and finances to funnel more resources up to the top rungs of society.  We can’t buy our way out of this crisis, but the captains of industry would sure like as many of us as possible to believe we can.

Does this mean everyone needs to be out in the street waving signs and yelling?

No, but your presence at that kind of protest would certainly be welcome and very helpful.  Marching in the streets is a commonly used protest tactic because it can be very effective, especially in raising awareness and making your numbers known to politicians and regular people who might not be on your side on this issue yet.  The more numbers at these protests, the better we look.  On the other hand, a small turnout can give the appearance that there aren’t very many people who care about the issue.  So if you can make it out to those kinds of events, its very helpful that you do at least every now and then.  But going to a march or public protest simply isn’t for everyone, for a variety of totally valid reasons, and I respect that.  There are a lot of other options for public and direct activism you can partake in, many of which can be done from the comfort of your home in your underwear, if you so desire.  Because this post is so long already, I’m going to take the opportunity to address these in another post.


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