Have you ever handled a product and considered the existential weight of your purchase? Behind every price tag is a ripple effect. It extends from earth to waterways, grocery aisles to kitchen slabs, factories to fulfillment centers and post slots to landfills. This global impact has become less hidden over the past decade, and ignoring the people downstream from us has become increasingly difficult. We are more aware than ever of the marks left by our consumption on planet Earth, which now supports nearly 8 billion people. Somehow, humans still pump more than 30 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere a year, despite the mountain of evidence that CO2 is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases causing global warming. Similar riddles apply to the use of plastic and the consumption of meat and other goods. We know we need to do better, but we feel helpless and overwhelmed. Let's call this the ecological crisis; it is true on a very personal level for most environmentally conscious people, and on a global scale.
Climate journalist and author Tatiana Schlossberg says even a simple trip to the supermarket can be crippling in 2021. "I want to buy something local, but it's not organic. Or maybe it's in a plastic box," she says. her 2019 book Inconspicuous Consumption, she ventures far beyond the shopping aisle and into the web of less obvious ways people are damaging the Earth. For example, your internet use is linked to high CO2 emissions and energy consumption. The solution to this problem, however, is not that you stop using the internet, according to Schlossberg and many other climate experts The world is more complicated than that.
In fact, it has never been more complicated to be a good citizen on planet Earth. On your own journey with climate concerns, you have probably wondered or bothered about this question: What should I do? It's easy to get lost in the blizzard of supposed answers wandering social media, the latest datasets and & # 39; eco-friendly & # 39; marketing campaigns. So we put this question to five people who have immersed their careers, research and writing in the realities of climate science. One of their most consistent insights may surprise you: Consumer responsibility – and guilt-ridden behavior change – misses the mark.
“One of the biggest shortcomings of the environmental movement is that everyone is focused on these little things that everyone can do,” said Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-host of the podcast How to Save a Planet. That doesn't mean you don't do it anymore. There are simply more meaningful and long-lasting ways to spend your energy on the climate battle. Most relate to organization and collective action.
"Individuals work together to collectively have much more power to change the system than as individuals," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Climate Change Communications Program. He and many of the researchers who led the numbers say that even the bravest of voluntary lifestyle changes – going vegan, refusing to fly, or investing in green energy for your home – are far behind the change we need. These experts propose other important steps every human can take towards a better future. But first, you need to understand some facts and myths about the current playing field.
The average temperature on Earth has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. (Credit: Sunshine Seeds / Shutterstock)
The story of fossil fuels
Climate journalist and author David Wallace-Wells puts climate reality in stark terms. "We need to get from about 40 gigatons per year of CO2 emissions to zero over the next few decades if we are to stabilize the planet's climate below what is called a catastrophic level of warming," said Wallace-Wells. His recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, paints a bleak, science-based picture of the near future on Earth. The book shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2019.
His view, and that of his colleagues, is that voluntarily reducing your personal carbon production by a certain percentage – or buying real carbon offset credits while continuing to use fossil fuels – is a minor battle. More specifically, it is the struggle that fossil fuel companies have given consumers.
"It's a distraction. It's an extremely successful PR campaign to make us all feel terrible about our individual decisions and not really focus on changing the fact that we have a fossil-fuel-based economy" , says Johnson.
As a good example, three of our experts pointed to the history of the carbon footprint – a tool that tells you (or your company) how much pollution you cause. The fossil fuel industry, especially British Petroleum (BP), brought this concept to the masses with a hugely successful marketing campaign some twenty years ago. Rather than trying to defend its crude oil, petroleum and other fossil fuel products (which the US Environmental Protection Agency now identifies as "the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions"), the industry gave its customers a method of feeling bad about their consumption . Meanwhile, BP ranks sixth on the list of the world's largest contributors of CO2 and methane, according to 2017 data from the Climate Accountability Institute. Only 20 energy companies were responsible for 35 percent of these pollutants worldwide.
Another campaign that started with fossil fuel companies? The modern approach to recycling that has been integrated in the US for decades, despite ongoing criticism and concerns about the broken model. Essentially, the petroleum-dependent plastics industry viewed recycling as a solution, as it continued to create new plastics with petroleum, natural gas and their byproducts, taking advantage of the business. Meanwhile, only a fraction of what you responsibly dispose of is recycled. “It's totally bogus,” says Leiserowitz. "As long as you and I stay on the hook for this, (the companies) are free." In a major NPR and PBS Frontline investigation in 2020, journalist Laura Sullivan wrote, “The industry sold the public with an idea it knew wouldn't work … while making billions of dollars by making the world new plastic. to sell.
With this broader understanding of the current crisis, consumers can take informed and deliberate actions to change our culture in general, as if our climate depended on it. Wallace-Wells says this does not detract from living your personal values with lifestyle and purchasing decisions. Sure, eat less meat, throw out your petroleum-guzzling car, or boycott plastic. Those things generally have some degree of environmental benefits. But the urgent priority is to change the massive industries, policies and fuel source at the root.
Do one thing right
Part of the challenge with the environmental movement is the dizzying list of things we need to change: farming practices, transportation systems, and power grids, to name a few. There is no single ecological cause that everyone should address in their personal life. Instead, try to move beyond the crippling picture of everything that needs fixing. Choose something specific in your life.
"The question isn't," What's the only thing anyone can do? "But" What's the special thing that each of us can contribute? "Johnson says.
Your specific interests and skills should guide you. And you can usually integrate your efforts into where you already work, live, or play.
A recent example occurred after Johnson attended a star-studded climate protest in Washington, D.C., along with her boyfriend Boris Khentov, a senior vice president at a financial planning firm. After the event feeling energized and motivated, Boris asked if he could attend another march. Johnson forwarded him, “I said to him, 'No, Boris. You are a financial director. Get back to work and restore your business. & # 39; & # 39; In the fall of 2020, Khentov helped launch socially responsible and environmentally sound investment portfolios at Betterment.
This mindset applies to everyone, whether you are a line cook, maintenance worker, pastor, country farmer or farm manager. Your particular work environment and social circles would benefit widely from your individual passion and example. It just takes a little initiative. And that is one of the best investments in your energy and time.
“What are you good at? And how can you use those skills, resources and spheres of influence?” Johnson says. The specific answers to those questions will identify what they are & # 39; your superpowers & # 39; calls. It's much easier to address a second or third cause (both personal and systemic) once you've made a change and seen success.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, transportation makes up most of the human activities responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the past 150 years.
(Credit: Mate J Kastelic / Shutterstock)
Talk about the walk
This same principle of doing one thing right can apply to consumer decisions, such as alternative transportation or installing solar panels in your home. Do that one thing right, and then realize that the crucial shift is happening when others witness your concerns, decisions, and behavioral change.
"The real strength is in your role model, your social signaling to everyone around you," says Leiserowitz. "When you drive an electric car, you bring social contacts with you. Everywhere you go, you give people a signal that these things exist."
This is about shifting the daily story to the climate. Leiserowitz says this requires that you often talk about the environment with others in your life. As a parallel, consider the public opinion on smoking indoors, just 30 years ago. How would you react today to someone who lit a cigarette in your house or car without asking? Leiserowitz says culture in general should embrace a similar attitude to pollution.
These important conversations about climate can happen naturally and casually in your personal life. But they must also join climate organizations. If you don't have time to volunteer and show up, Leiserowitz says you should donate to local groups that organize in your community and put pressure on lawmakers. Better yet, do both.
Act, vote and think locally
People often overlook the weight that their own neighborhood, city, province and state puts on the environment. To address this, we need to liaise with our immediate community, says Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation and professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.
“We need to be publicly involved in that democratic process and public life,” said Wildcat, who is an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in social sciences and public policy. The concept stems from a connection with the country and everything we share with it.
"The cultures of indigenous peoples have evolved from this symbiotic relationship with a place," said Wildcat. The country determined "the kind of food they ate, the kind of house they lived in, the kind of clothes they wore."
Some people today think locally about food purchases or art, such as shopping at farmers' markets and artist fairs. The same should be true of the democratic process. Local policies dictate building codes, alternative transportation infrastructure, public energy use and land use, Wildcat says. Most of these matters are dictated by locally elected officials and public input, over which you as a resident and voter have significant influence.
Leiserowitz underlines the role of mayors and the US president. “Vote for climate champions, at every level of governance,” he says. "It's one of the most powerful acts you can take."
The experts also highlight how the adverse and immediate impacts of climate change affect the most vulnerable countries and communities first. So even if you aren't already suffering the consequences, your neighbors may be, and so will the generations to come. "The effects disproportionately affect black and other colored communities in the US, and low-income communities here and around the world," said Schlossberg.
Develop a climate worldview
Wallace-Wells is leading anyone interested in preventing famines, economic collapses and unprecedented refugee crises to orient their worldview and politics to climate concerns. “Every aspect of the human experience has a kind of climate change fingerprint,” he says. "It doesn't matter what you care about, if you really want to solve that problem, it's crucial to think about it through a climate lens."
Wildcat says this is not a new idea, but one that many people have forgotten. His book Red Alert! shares how indigenous knowledge can inform how we save the planet today, both on a personal and systemic level. He argues that the term natural resources causes over-consumption, inequality and imbalance in the natural world. Instead, he teaches a kin-centric worldview in the light of the Anthropocene – our current geological era, defined by humans as the dominant force on Earth.
By seeing land as related, it generates respect and sustainability, where people are more open to learning from the natural world rather than dominating it. "I don't think there is anything romantic about that. It fits very nicely with the theory of evolution and ecological science," says Wildcat. part of a moral and ethical universe. "
In other words, what is downstream from you, and how do you honor that life? Schlossberg also mentioned responsibility when asked how people should handle the ecological crisis ahead. "I don't think people should feel individually guilty for climate change," she says. "But we must all feel collectively responsible for building a better world."
(Credit: Mikedotta / Shutterstock)
Timothy Meinch is Discover's feature editor.