Why Green "Lifestyle Choices" Will Never Save Us

Ed Yourdon/CC BY-SA 2.0

From shed working in fingerless gloves, through peeing on my garden mulch, to cooking pasta in a frying pan and cutting back on dairy, I do make an effort to reduce my personal environmental impact.

But I'm far from perfect.

Am I Doing All I Can?
Lights get left on when they shouldn't. I drive places I probably don't need to. And I confess that my wife and I still get a little lazy when it comes to line drying our clothes. All this lead to a conversation the other day about whether there is any hope. "If folks like you aren't doing all they can," asked my dinner companion "what hope is there for system wide change."

I argued that individual lifestyle choices are not a valid metric for cultural and political change. (A point I've made elsewhere in my post on footprints versus leverage.) But I suspect it came off more as an excuse than an explanation.

Luckily, Gar Lipow over at Grist makes a far more eloquent case for why lifestyle choices won't stop climate change than I ever could.

This is one of those posts that I wish that I had written:

The bottom line: Consumer demand follows spending on public goods. It does not lead it. For instance: At a certain point, consumer demand may have driven the growth of the internet, but it came into existence, and grew large enough to attract consumer demand to begin with, almost entirely due to military and university spending. In this context, how do we drive change?

The climate crisis is one of the great issues of the 21st century. Slavery was one of the great issues of the 19th. Certain utopian communes at that time raised their own cotton and avoided buying any slave-made products. They were pioneers in treating political issues as a matter of personal consumer virtue. In contrast: Harriet Tubman, who wore slave-made cotton clothes, actually infiltrated slave territory and freed hundreds of slaves. Frederick Douglass, who wore slave-made clothes and used slave-grown sugar, was one of the great orators of his era and successfully promoted the abolitionist cause.

All this is not to say that lifestyle choices don't matter. They do.

Getting Our Priorities Right
But rather than asking ourselves why we, or others, aren't doing all we can—we should look at what we are doing to limit our impact while we are living in a system that encourages the exact opposite, and imagine how much those efforts would be multiplied in a world where we paid the true cost of gasoline, where the coal industry was held responsible for its economically ruinous impacts, and where Governments got serious about supporting clean energy.

Not only does this systemic perspective push us more toward activism, advocacy than a focus on individual virtue—it also encourages us to view the lifestyle choices we make a little differently. Installing solar panels on your home isn't primarily about cutting your own personal impact—it's about making a strategic investment in an emerging clean energy infrastructure, and choosing a point of leverage where you believe you can create wider social change. The same could be said for any number of individual actions—from buying a dairy free pizza to using Freecycle. But the crucial thing is to not ask what this does for my personal carbon footprint, but rather what does this do to move our collective culture forward.

Yes, I should turn the lights off. Yes, we should all try harder. But ultimately this battle is about cultural and political change on a scale that has rarely been seen before. First and foremost that will require collective action.

Tags: Activism | Consumerism | Economics | Global Climate Change