Why an individualistic approach isn’t enough
Going paperless won’t save the planet. Neither will using reusable bags, sending less emails, choosing bamboo toothbrushes, or anything else that is on an individual level. This individualistic approach is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety, but it’s not a great way to make huge change.
Even if we all adopted these changes, we would still have issues. What about income inequality? What about systemic racism? What about lack of healthcare? What about the problems the climate crisis has already caused not only in wealthy nations but in poor countries as well?
You might be thinking, “well, those aren’t environmental issues,” but they are. The climate crisis is an intersectional issue. There is no climate justice without economic and social justice.
The problem with individualism
Individualism is the reason used by big corporations, members of government, and others in power to skirt the responsibility of their actions. They want you to believe that you are poor because you didn’t work hard enough, not because the minimum wage hasn’t been raised in over a decade. They want you to believe that you don’t have healthcare because you settled for a job without benefits, not because healthcare is a human right and they don’t want to tell their donors to f*ck off. They want you to believe that the climate crisis exists because you use too much and create too much waste, not because they created the systems that forced you to live this way.
The power of individualism is a lie capitalism tells you so those at the top can make more money. The stock market always going up isn’t sustainable, but it looks good on their bottom lines. Why should they care about the rising sea levels that are going to predominantly affect black and brown countries? They can buy their own way to safety.
As Naomi Klein gets at in her book On Fire: The Case for a Green New Deal, saving the planet isn’t profitable, and so it will not happen under a capitalistic system. Saving the planet means we need to put people and planet above profit, which is not exactly how capitalism functions. And this individualistic approach to the climate crisis that so many promote, fits right in with capitalism’s messaging.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for individualistic measures. For example, I personally purchase items packaged in glass over plastic when possible, carry reusable bags to the grocery store, use stone paper notebooks, and so many more eco things to help my own eco-anxiety. It is not easy to live in the middle of a climate crisis especially when some in power are denying it’s even real. It’s depressing to realize that we haven’t even seen the full effects of our actions yet. But individual action is not where big changes take place. So what can we do? Help lead the change to dismantle the systems that are in place.
How we can actually help save the planet
Saving the planet is going to take collective action. It is going to require all of us to come together globally to reinvent society. Klein lays out a great plan in On Fire. Here’s a summary:
- Reviving and reinventing the public sphere
This requires implementing subways, streetcars, and light-rail systems everywhere, making these systems affordable or free to everyone, providing energy-efficient, affordable housing along those transit systems, creating smart electrical grids, and massively researching to ensure the best methods are being used
- Remembering how to plan
Focusing down from international, every city and community needs a plan to transition away from fossil fuels, reorganize their communities to lower emissions, ensure that those losing jobs to these changes have real, secure, and well-paying jobs that will be pivotal to this societal shift, and address the agricultural crises of soil erosion, extreme weather, and dependence on fossil fuels.
- Reining in corporations
We need more than just incentives and the clock is ticking. This means we need to ban corporate behavior that is outright dangerous and destructive, cap the amount of carbon a corporation is allowed to emit, bar corporations from building new coal-fired power plants, crack down on industrial feedlots, and cancel new plans for oil pipelines.
- Relocalizing production
Outsourcing and cheap goods are great for corporate bottom lines, but this wasteful model cancels out the modest gains that have been made in reducing emissions and then some. We need to respect natural limits and ration the use of energy-intensive long-haul transport, overhaul the reckless form of “free trade,” promote the good news that this would mean small businesses would not have to compete with offshore manufacturing of larger corporations, and recognize it will not be easy to reverse a 30-year trend of removing limits on corporate power.
- Ending the cult of shopping
Rapid economic growth has led to an overconsumption of natural resources. The root of this problem must be addressed by realizing the answer is not as simple as “decoupling” economic growth from its environmental impact, reducing the amount of material goods the wealthiest 20% of people consume, and recognizing our choice becomes “trash the system or crash the planet.”
- Taxing the filthy rich
How do we pay for all of this? We’re not going to grow our way out of it, so we need to go to where the money is and tax carbon and financial speculation, increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy, cut bloated military budgets, eliminate subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, work with all governments to coordinate responses so that corporations can’t hide, and go after the profits of the corporations that are largely responsible for getting us into this mess.
All of these steps require collective action, putting profits aside, and completely restructuring our societies to be better for all.
But is that all really possible?
Yes, it is. Will it be easy? No. But, it is possible. You might be thinking “well there has to be an easier way” and I mean, yeah, there probably are “easier” ways. For example, Bill Gates wants to pump sulfur dioxide into the sky to block out the sun to lessen the effects of climate change. Sounds really great and easy, right? It would fix the problem and we could all go on with our own lives, what’s not to love? Well, a lot.
First of all, this would effectively remove the sky from existence. Can you imagine living in a world without a sky? Second, it would open the door to climate war. Once someone decides to do this – because it really does just take one person to decide, the world does not have to agree – countries could start using this as a weapon of war. Sending sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere could deprive places like India of their monsoon season causing famine. It seems like a wonderful way to destroy an entire country very quickly. And, if the technology gets good enough, maybe they could then reverse the effects and colonize that land for themselves. Doesn’t this sound familiar?
Band-aid solutions repeat the mistakes we’ve already made. We got into this mess because humans wanted power and money. We’ve already manipulated the earth through oil drilling, burning fossil fuels, and mining. Why do we think we can get out of this mess by manipulating the earth more? It’s because the people proposing these ideas have the most to lose from restructuring society; they’re billionaires. And yet, the media refers to them as “very smart people” with some “great ideas.”
This is complete and utter bullsh*t. We do not need to cater to the whims of the billionaires. We need to hold them accountable, tax them, and redistribute their wealth to make the world a better place for us all, not just one that is inhabitable so that they can continue to make money off the backs of the working class. This means that in order to address the climate crisis, we must address social and economic justice simultaneously.
Being an intersectional environmentalist
To simultaneously advocate for climate, social, and economic justice, you must practice interesctional environmentalism. But, what does that mean? Intersectional environmentalism is “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.” (Definition from Leah Thomas, Intersectional Environmentalist)
The climate crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color, indigenous peoples, black and brown countries, and the poor. Saving the planet and leaving these populations behind is only addressing the surface-level problems. In order to address the climate crisis, we also need to address systemic racism, income inequality, and all other forms of human rights issues.
This means we must support policies like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, tuition-free college, defunding the police, increasing the minimum wage, and more. We must be advocates for Black Lives Matter, for unions, and for teachers. We must believe in the possibility of restructuring society as Klein laid out. We must fight to end capitalism.
Capitalism inherently supports white supremacy. Capitalism needs exploitation of labor to survive. Capitalism is an outdated, racist, sexist system that cannot exist in a fair and just world.
We cannot be apolitical during this time. We must pick a side and we must be vocal about it. Silence is complicit. I don’t want to hear “I don’t mix politics and business, it’s not professional.” You know what’s worse than being unprofessional? An uninhabitable planet. A country where people have to choose between their health and bankruptcy. A world where police murder black people and get away with it.
We’re currently living in some of these realities but many of us have the privilege to not have to face it on a day-to-day basis. That doesn’t mean we can sit back and do nothing. It means we need to use our privilege and advocate for those who need help by uplifting their voices and acknowledging their struggle comes from an unfair and unjust system. It means we can’t stay stuck in the “listening and learning” phase. Action is required.
We are saving the planet for the people, if we are not saving the people with the planet, we are not doing anyone justice other than the billionaires who would like to keep the status quo. So while individual actions can be helpful, they are not the end all be all. If you are advocating much more for individual actions rather than swift and comprehensive political action, you are only addressing the surface of the problem and are complicit in a capitalistic system that promotes inequality, racism, and violence.
No one is perfect but we all must do better. We must hold each other accountable. We must do more than “listen and learn.” The time for action is now. Burn down the system.