Individuals can’t afford to carry the weight of the climate crisis alone

Addressing the climate crisis is impossible without drastic government action

Zach Pollard expresses concern over a recent opinion piece prioritizing individual over political action.
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I was concerned when I read an opinion piece published earlier this month in The Queen’s Journal, entitled “Individuals have just as much responsibility as governments to address the climate crisis.”

In my view, this philosophy is overly individualistic. It ignores the context of the climate crisis and how long it took us to start addressing these issues as a collective.

Government action limits which personal actions are possible. Therefore, governments have a greater responsibility to address the climate crisis than individuals do.

The original opinion piece arguedthat recent climate strikes become concerning when they place too much focus on urging governments to take action, thereby minimizing the power of individual action. The opinion’s writer expresses that “we should shift toward focusing on our individual roles in the fight against climate change.”

This thought is troubling for a few reasons.

The piece implies many individuals attend climate protests to align with recent trends in social media, but are unconcerned by their daily individual contributions to the climate crisis. I only have my own activist experience to fall back on to understand this phenomenon, but I'm not convinced that these people exist in large numbers.

Everyone I've met at a climate protest is also the kind of person who feels guilty when they eat meat or forget to bring reusable bags to the grocery store. As students in particular, it’s difficult and costly to adopt climate-friendly practices as individuals. This is because our governments make it that way.

A government that continues to prop up meat, dairy, and plastic industries to maintain the cheapness of these products is a government that doesn’t care about actively worsening the current climate emergency.

The fact that people can’t stop consuming products that contribute to the climate crisis entirely on their own, usually due to reasons of financial accessibility, is more reason to push for more than just personal responsibility as a response to the climate crisis.

Governments, by definition, define what citizens can and cannot do. For example, if a government decided to outlaw plastic bags altogether, forgetting your plastic bags at home would soon become a non-issue.

While individuals do have the power to reduce their environmental impact, governments’ abilities to affect that change are clearly greater.

The opinion piece also suggests that focusing on government action encourages individual passivity. But protest is not a passive act, and many of Kingston’s citizens are actively engaged in efforts to combat the climate crisis.

The widespread civilian discussion of systemic government action on the changing climate is still very new. It’s inappropriate to tell people that they should focus more on their own personal responsibility than on politicians. After all, it's not like that solved this problem before we started protesting collectively.

Whole generations were raised to remember to take cold showers, turn the lights off, and recycle—and that would fix everything. Despite these personal responsibilities, the climate crisis has only gotten worse. Demandingmore systemic solutionsis the next logical step to combat this crisis. Another generation of encouraging people to go vegan or drive electric cars won’t solve the immensity of the problem we’re facing.

All of this individualistic neoliberal logic focuses on market solutions, which concerns me on principle.

If a government were limited to implementing only market solutions, like a mandatory fee for plastic bag use, government action might be less important.

However, many people are calling for government action beyond market solutions. They’re seeking direct action: capping for-profit exploitation of resources, taking a public stance on the burning of the Amazon rainforest, and forcing companies to find alternatives to harmful practices.

The writer also goes on to offer boycotting as an alternative means of affecting company policy, which is a severely limited tactic. While we can boycott individual grocery stores for selling plastic bags, it’s not like we can boycott all grocery stores at once without starving.

We need larger-scale change.

I’m happy the author of the piece, as well as many other Queen’s students, do so much work to improve our planet’s health on a personal level. But if we’re really concerned with saving the world, we should be willing to change the way it functions.

The work that goes into influencing governments can be fruitful in ways that no amount of personal responsibility can be.

The article ends on a somewhat cynical note. The writer says going green is merely a trend, and that soon enough, most people won't be concerned with the climate crisis. They say that while our attention is turned to this issue, we should change our individual spending habits to favor eco-friendly products and encourage others to do the same. Their conclusion is that "it's not up to governments alone."

In my view, the language in those statements downplays the power and responsibility that governments hold in shaping our futures.

The author is right—people could lose interest in this issue if all we talk about is personal action, endlessly self-improving with no political goals in sight. But they won’t lose focus if political action gives us something to work toward without exhausting us as individuals.

Systemic understanding and systemic action are important. Many of us haven’t critically considered the increasing role of large corporations and governments in contributing to the climate crisis. We've been raised to emphasize personal responsibility, which we need to learn to look beyond.

I'd encourage readers to critically analyze the political systems governing us, which enable success for the subsidized oil giants that feed climate change.

We don’t have another twelve years to waste, hoping that personal responsibility will solve climate change. The consequences of stalling government action will eventually prove fatal. We don’t have the time for this argument.

It’s up to governments to make drastic change, not us as people alone. 

Zach Pollard is a first-year Concurrent Education student.

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