It seems like every few days a post crops up on the blogosphere questioning whether personal action makes a difference to the environmental movement. Now, I'll admit that when I first decided I wasn't going to buy stuff, I didn't have a very clear idea of what I was trying to achieve. But, I figured, why not dive in and figure out everything else later? And you know, that worked for me. But it's been several months now, and I do feel that the question, "Why do you bother?" is an important one to address. So, let's get down to it.
Question: Can my individual actions to lighten my carbon footprint really have an impact (on a global scale)?
Short answer: No.
The long answer is also no, but that doesn't mean individual action doesn't matter.
Individual action doesn't happen in a vacuum. Individual action leads to collective action. And collective action in turn leads to change in public policy.
Think about every great social movement in the history of this country. Abolition. Women's suffrage. Temperance. (Okay, that one was not so great.) Civil Rights. Gay rights. All of these movements share a common history: that is they grew out of individual action. Before the Emancipation Proclamation there was Harriet Tubman. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Public policy has always FOLLOWED social change, not preceded it.
So yes, it was the 13th amendment that ended slavery. But there never would have been a 13th amendment if it weren't for individuals like Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the members of countless sewing and quilting circles.
Rosa Parks. Harriet Tubman. Sewing circles. Hmmm, am I insinuating something here? Isn't it ironic that the same week that some of the leading environmental policy makers in America engaged in a flame war on each others' blogs, a woman who is known to most of her readers as "Crunchy Chicken," was getting it done? This is not to denigrate the work of Joe Romm, Michael Shellenberger or Ted Nordhaus, all of whom I greatly respect. But I bring it up more to illustrate that old adage, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Women have historically been the backbone of social movements. Just as Abolition stemmed from sewing circles, so too does the environmental movement stem from book clubs, food buying clubs, and swap-o-rama-ramas.
Right now I'm actually reading Shellenberger and Nordhaus's book "Break Through," which is a fantastic must-read for anyone interested in the environmental movement. In it, they lament the fact that environmentalists do not know how to organize like churches. Well, no disrespect to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, but we're building our church, thank you very much. We've got groups committed to 10% carbon emissions, and others committed to victory gardens. We've got 40 people cutting clutter, 25 people giving to others, and over 200 people not buying a dang thing! And just like a church, our challenges and virtual eco-groups offer participants support and fulfillment.
So, no. Individual actions by themselves don't mean much. We cannot expect to drastically cut emissions without changes in policy. But the policy change will never happen without social change happening first. And social change begins at home.
Individual action doesn't matter? Tell that to Rosa Parks.
5 weeks ago