Yes, every little thing you do for the planet matters — but not in the way you think.
As a member of Generation X, I have grown up under a constant pressure to be “green.” Like many of my peers, I learned to use the term before I was really sure what it meant. Was I supposed to plant trees? Recycle? Ride my bike? I had the feeling that the word meant something bigger, but it was used so often, and in so many different contexts, that it felt more confusing than inspiring. If I’m honest, it still feels that way to me. Maybe you’re in the same boat. You’ve done your reading on climate change; you know about carbon footprints, methane emissions, and the plastic piling up in our oceans. You’ve learned to sort your recycling, you’ve cut down on meat and dairy, and you bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Maybe you even have solar panels, buy all your food in bulk, and drive an electric car. You’re doing all you can for the environment.
Or are you? Recent media, such as this opinion piece from the New York Times, has emphasized that our climate crisis is simply too big to be solved by changing our personal habits. Our societies are filled with systemic problems, such as fossil-fuel subsidies, industrial emissions, and deforestation. Injustice on this scale, we are told, can only be solved through political lobbying, mass demonstrations, and even civil disobedience.
In a sense, that’s absolutely true. Even if I managed to never touch another piece of single-use plastic, to take 3-minute showers for the rest of my life, and to boycott air travel, the climatic impact of my actions would be negligible. In fact, even if thousands of us committed to living zero-waste, carbon-neutral lifestyles, we would still not have changed our society’s structural dependency on unsustainable resource-use. Global problems need global solutions, not personal ones.
I am not here to discourage global action; it is something that we desperately need. But this emphasis on mass movement simply doesn’t tell the whole story. Although campaigns, action networks, and political pressure are probably our only chance to restore the world to a thriving state, even the greatest movements aren’t built from scratch. They exist because real people are exposed to a culture that gives them a blueprint for action.
When I was a kid, my concept of “environmentalism” was rather small and familiar. It was created when the adults around me showed how a plastic bottle could be recycled, that bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store could save five cents, and that plant-based foods could taste good. I watched trusted friends and family make choices to protect the environment. They challenged me to do the same. As I made changes to my own lifestyle, I started to wonder what I could do next, and how I could make a bigger difference. These bite-sized encounters with sustainability laid the groundwork for my passion for activism later on. Though we cannot afford to take our eyes off of bigger goals, personal action and global action do not need to be at odds with one another. They are two parts of a cycle.
Ultimately, it is true that our individual actions are not significant enough to protect our future. But what is significant is the social impact of our choices. The problem is not that our actions are too small; the problem is that we think we can make a difference on our own. This means that we need to start implementing our environmentalism in a different way. Our goal need not be to live a 100% vegan, zero-waste, or carbon-neutral lifestyle. Instead, we should aim to notice how the symptoms of our destructive society manifest in our personal lives, and to be as loud as possible in rejecting those symptoms.
For many of us, the “loud” part can be the most difficult. In fact, I used to believe that the best approach to environmentalism was to be eco-conscious when I was alone, and to be “flexible” when others were involved. But, seeing as I really wanted to impact others through my actions, that approach was quite upside-down. We need to be loudest when we have an audience — even if being loud is uncomfortable. When we show that we are unafraid to take a stand for what we believe in — sustainable food options, reusable materials, low-carbon transportation, etc. — we are changing the narrative about what is “socially acceptable.” We are demonstrating that sustainable alternatives exist. We are declaring that our world matters enough to make sacrifices for. One encounter at a time, we are building public outrage over the carelessness and greed that run rampant in our world.
Of course, as every system in nature demonstrates for us, we must find a balance. Being overly-rigid about our sustainability efforts can push people away, or it can take up so much of our time and energy that we don’t get involved in larger projects. We live in the real world, and that world is often fast-paced, critical, and distrusting of the unfamiliar. But the real world is also full of opportunities to raise our voices about what is important.
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. First of all, give yourself some grace — your actions, or lack of them, aren’t responsible for climate change. This issue is simply bigger than any of us. But don’t think that the small things don’t matter. Rather, start looking for opportunities to use simple actions as a platform for greater issues. Ask yourself this question: how can [insert sustainable action] be the beginning of a cultural shift? Everything you do matters, but maybe not in the way you thought. Your actions matter, as long as they are building a culture in which unsustainable equals unacceptable, in which destroying our environment is no longer tolerated. Together, we can build a grassroots base of citizens who take personal responsibility for the environment. And that is what will drive real change.