On Climate Change and Individual Action

Individual action on climate change | Litterless

For a report that mostly confirms what we already knew, the new United Nations Climate Assessment felt, last week, like a terrible surprise. The timeline faster, the consequences more dire, the predictions more concrete than what I’d been imaging when the words “climate change” crossed my lips. That climate change is here, now, not in the future, is not news. But that it’s here now, and will hit a crisis point in the next decade, felt like news.

I’ve written before about how climate optimism has been an essential ingredient to my environmental work. About how I’ve given myself permission to step back from the daily grind of environmental news and to focus my efforts on community action and writing in this space. That feels harder to justify now. Climate disasters feel, are, closer now. Action is more urgent.

I still believe that hopefulness and despair are necessary ingredients to galvanizing climate action. I still have hope and I still have despair. What's newly, slowly, painfully emerging is a sense that my work, that our work, doesn’t have one percent of one percent of one percent of the effect that it needs to. That everything needs to change so much faster than I believed.

I already knew this - but now I know it. The difference between the two feels vast.

On individual action and climate change | Litterless

For me, the zero waste movement has always been about channeling my frustration with government and business inaction on environmental issues into changes that I can enact daily. Four years ago, frustrated by living in a country that declined to take on the mantle of environmental leadership, I decided to do more myself. To vote, yes, to call legislators, yes, to patronize businesses that work to minimize their impact, yes, but also to do what I could in my own life to make sure my everyday choices aligned with the world I wanted to see.

Sometimes individual actions seem ridiculous when compared what policy could achieve. And, perhaps, they are. I believe strongly that we need both: we need policies that hamper emissions and pollution, and support clean energy, carbon sequestration, municipal composting, comprehensive recycling, and true corporate responsibility.

And yet we also need to rely less on disposable plastics, to mend and repair what we have, to not believe that the government will solve all of our problems, to do better ourselves. Both, and not one, will get us closer to where we need to be. We can’t solve climate change without huge policy changes and we can’t solve climate change without a dramatic re-thinking of what it means to be a consumer. Let’s get back to work on both.

How to do more, today:

-Talk about it. With your family, with your friends. Last night while making dinner Julian and I talked about the climate report and the dire predictions, and how we can do more for the environment beyond zero waste. We re-affirmed our commitment to eating local foods, to walking and biking instead of driving. We talked about ways to arrange our lives in the future so that we need to fly less. I set our thermostat schedule to lower the heat at night. I made a plan to write this post. All tiny things. All basically useless, in the grand scheme. And yet.

-Show up for environmental justice. Privilege has the effect of sheltering many of us from the worst of climate change, as it does from many other things. Particularly for white people in Western countries, like myself, this means we aren’t the ones facing the consequences of our over-consumption (as Polly put it here). If you have privilege, use it: donate money, volunteer time, consume less, vote. That is your job, and mine.

-Make sure you’re registered to vote. Though the midterm elections aren’t until November 6th, voter registration deadlines in many states are this week and this month. Resources for registering in your state, here.

How are you feeling? Where do you fall on a belief in individual action? Other ideas to share? Please do.

More essays, here.

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).