Individuals have just as much responsibility as governments to address the climate crisis

Focusing on policy can deter us from considering all the ways that we harm the planet

Jordan Pike is concerned that we are not taking enough action at the micro level to stop climate change.
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Over a week at the end of September, millions of people around the world—predominately young people—took to the streets to protest a lack of political and social action to mitigate the effects of our changing climate.

The protests emerged as a result of Scandinavian teen Greta Thunberg’s public outcry about the environmental dangers threatening our generation’s survival and livelihood. And depending on who you ask, you might hear different ideas regarding the primary goal of these widespread protests.

Some would argue the movement was meant to enforce the reality of the climate crisis in order to raise awareness, while others would say it’s about pressuring governments to take necessary action by investing in clean energies and limiting fossil fuel emissions.

It’s the latter explanation that confuses me, and that warrants conversation.

When Billie Eilish and Woody Harrelson’s YouTube video Our House Is On Fire was the #1 trending video on the site, the stars gained a platform that gave them the power to encourage lawmakers to critically consider their environmental policies.

While Eilish did offer steps individuals can take to tackle environmental issues, the video seemed to focus more on governments than on our own actions.  Harrelson argued that it’s up to us as people to pressure governments to enforce climate-crisis-related policies. While this is true, in my view,  the celebrities undermined the importance of individual accountability.

It’s not enough to wait for the government to take action. We should also place pressure on ourselves to do the same.

I’m not going to try to persuade you to eat less meat, thrift more clothes, or to walk more—that’s not my argument.

Instead, we should veer away from solely focusing on institutional responsibility to tackle this issue. We should shift toward focusing on our individual roles in the fight against climate change.

While institutions obviously play an essential role in fighting this fight, I worry the climate movement places too large an emphasis on governments and excuses our individual contributions to climate issues.

This might be due to a recent flurry of articles on this topic, which suggest we need to focus more on government action than our own. For instance, Anders Leverman’s op-ed in The Guardian in July argued governments’ actions are more important than our own when it comes to meeting climate goals.

This narrative worries me. Its encouragement of individual passivity might encourage people to lobby governments for change, but this can also distract those same people from evaluating their own behaviors and habits.

We’re using so much energy and effort protesting governments that, in the process, we seem to have forgetten about the negative impacts our personal lifestyles have on the planet.

Take, for instance, single-use plastic bags, which are widely understood to be harmful to the environment. While retailers are now required to charge additional fees for these bags, those extra cents don’t stop many individuals from continuing to purchase them out of convenience.

When this is contrasted with movements that are started by ordinary citizens instead of governments, it’s clear that peer pressure is typically a better driver for prompt action than any legislation.

Nothing persuades people to enact individual change more than peer pressure. This is effectively how sustainable practices are becoming an essential part of business.  Individuals are now using their own social impact to send messages through their spending to corporations that continue to use unsustainable packing methods. This is a perfect example of how effective marketing combined with word of mouth can lead to a majority of people using a far more sustainable product.

Boycotting companies that don’t enforce sustainable practices is another great way to supplement governmental climate change measures. Clothing retailer Forever 21 recently filed for bankruptcy, and, while many reasons led to this decision, the poor clothing quality that emerged as a result of environmentally unsustainable fast fashion practices urged many consumers to choose other stores instead.  

Unfortunately, as media is cyclical, I worry our social motivation to address climate change on a personal level  won’t be as prevalent as it is now in a few months.

Large-scale uproar surrounding climate change only developed within mainstream media as a result of Thunberg’s efforts. As young people, the recent outcry has led us to realize the severity and urgency of this issue. Whether it was the devastating images of the Amazon burning or ice caps melting in the Arctic, we realize now that this is an issue that has to be acted upon immediately.

Soon enough, the curated Instagram stories, teen activism, and Facebook events for protests will vanish from our feeds and be replaced with advocacy surrounding a different issue challenging our world as we know it.

But before that happens, I urge you to think about your own actions and the people in your life. While I applaud those involved in confronting governments and corporations with this movement, we must remember how crucial our own behaviors are to prevent further climate emergencies.

We must take individual action to save our planet, and sustain that action beyond a point where caring about the climate falls out of style. It’s not just up to governments alone.

Jordan Pike is a third-year Film & Media Studies student.

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