Do Personal Consumption Habits Really Matter in the Climate Emergency?

Screen capture. They trained us to buy disposables and then pick up their garbage.

In a word, yes. We don't have to buy what they're selling.

At Ryerson University where I teach, I am starting an experiment where we try to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle, and limit our individual carbon footprints to 2.5 tonnes per year, which is what the IPCC suggests we all have to do by 2030 if we are going to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming. I have previously tried to address the question of whether these kinds of individual actions make a difference, quoting skeptic Martin Lukacs in the Guardian, who wrote that our concern about our personal habits and consumption are "the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action."

If affordable mass transit isn’t available, people will commute with cars. If local organic food is too expensive, they won’t opt out of fossil fuel-intensive supermarket chains. If cheap mass produced goods flow endlessly, they will buy and buy and buy.

I was reminded of this while reading the New York Times recently, where

which questions whether trying to change our habits matters at all in ideological war. She makes the same point as Lukacs:

Step 1: Ditch the shame. The first step is the key to all the rest. Yes, our daily lives are undoubtedly contributing to climate change. But that’s because the rich and powerful have constructed systems that make it nearly impossible to live lightly on the earth. Our economic systems require most adults to work, and many of us must commute to work in or to cities intentionally designed to favor the automobile. Unsustainable food, clothes and other goods remain cheaper than sustainable alternatives.

She continues:

As long as we are competing for the title of “greener than thou,” or are paralyzed by shame, we aren’t fighting the powerful companies and governments that are the real problem. And that’s exactly the way they like it.
susan spotless

© Big companies have trained us from childhood to pick up their garbage

It is true that the big corporations have been brainwashing us for 60 years, training us to pick up their garbage so they could sell disposables and then separate them into little piles so that they could pretend to recycle them. It's also true that it's now almost impossible to buy anything in a returnable bottle, or to sit in a restaurant to drink a coffee when they have outsourced the seating and tables to our cars. I get that they are evil and are manipulating us. TreeHugger emeritus Sami Grover, who has fretted about this issue for years, wrote that even "personal carbon footprinting" was an oil company invention:

Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuel companies are actually all too happy to talk about the environment. They just want to keep the conversation around individual responsibility, not systemic change or corporate culpability.

But we do have an option, and it is not just to avoid taking a straw, it is to not buy what they are selling, the whole damn cup.

That's when individual actions can add up to mass movements that change markets permanently. One only has to look at American history, and why so few Americans drink tea, going right back to the original Tea Party boycotts; John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail explaining how he developed a taste for coffee.

"I believe I forgot to tell you one anecdote. When I first came to this house it was late in the afternoon, and I had ridden thirty-five miles at least. "Madam," said I to Mrs. Huston, "is it lawful for a weary traveller to refresh himself with a dish of tea, provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no duties?" "No, sir," said she, "we have renounced all tea in this place, but I'll make you coffee." Accordingly, I have drank coffee every afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced, and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better." John Adams. Falmouth, 6 July, 1774.

People's habits changed, pretty much permanently, to the point that it seems that nobody in the USA even knows how to properly brew a cup of tea.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan selling cigarettes when everybody smoked/Promo image

People who smoke are now pariahs; and look at what is happening with the #metoo movement. Attitudes are changing. Individual actions lead to collective consciousness. Beyond Meat and Impossible burgers become market leaders.


Youthstrike Tweet/Screen capture

Even leaders of the Youth Strike For Climate say they stand for systemic change, not individual change.

Greta on strike in Katowice, Poland

© Greta on strike in Katowice, Poland/ ABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

But their entire movement started with individual action. By one person starting a climate strike. Everyone who participates is taking individual action, even as they demand systemic change.

Toronto budget

In Toronto, most of the money goes for cars. Vision Zero and bikes get 6 percent./Public Domain

When I decided to give up driving and commute by bike, I didn't do it out of shame. Yes, the city I live in massively invests in car infrastructure instead of bikes, spending billions to rebuild a highway that only 3 percent of commuters use. Yes, it's not as convenient or comfortable to take transit or bike as it is to drive.

Stop the murders campaing

Mark Wagenbuur -- BicycleDutch/Video screen capture

But every additional person on a bike is another message to the politicians that things are changing and so must our cities.

Emma Marris writes:

And yet we blame ourselves for not being green enough. As the climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar writes, “The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous.” It turns eco-saints against eco-sinners, who are really just fellow victims. It misleads us into thinking that we have agency only by dint of our consumption habits — that buying correctly is the only way we can fight climate change.

But consumption habits do matter. Flight shaming has seriously cut the number of short haul flights in Germany and Sweden. Fewer young people are getting drivers' licenses and car sales are dropping. Panera announced today that it is cutting half the meat off its menu because of "concerns about environmental sustainability." As Sami has written:

The goal is not — as Big Oil would gladly have us believe — to “save the world” one bike ride, or one veggie burger, at a time. But rather, it is to use personal lifestyle change as a lever to push for broader, society-wide change. Mike Berners-Lee, in his latest book There Is No Planet B, puts the challenge like this:
“We need to think beyond the immediate and direct effect of our actions and ask more about the ripples they send out...”

I will never believe that individual actions don't matter. They do now and they always have. And if we are going to get through 2030 without cooking the planet, that means thinking about our consumption habits. And that means setting an example.