The False Choice Between Behavior Change and System Change

A new think tank, the Hot or Cool institute, takes a look at the issue.

Climate is Changing, Why Aren't You?
©. In Green

The Hot or Cool Institute is a new public interest think tank that "explores the intersection between society and sustainability." According to its mission statement: "While behavior change is important at all levels, it is vital to change the norms, laws, provisioning systems, and infrastructure that dictate the actions of individuals. Sustainable change is both individual and systemic change."

This is an issue we have been wrestling with on Treehugger for years as we peddled LED bulbs, clotheslines, and bicycles, firmly in the individual actions camp while studiously avoiding politics. I actually wrote a book about it while I tried to live a 1.5-degree lifestyle.

Meanwhile, climate scientist Michael Mann wrote a book where he claims the emphasis on small personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed." Treehugger commenter Greg even did a hilarious meme about this argument in response to a recent post, asking: "This is even a question?"

Greg Hamra

Lina Fedirko, program manager at ClimateWorks Foundation, and Kate Power, development director of the Hot or Cool Institute, are asking why this is even a question too, in a recent article debunking the false choice between individual behavior change and systems change. They say that "systems change and individual behavior change are not conflicting frameworks for how to mitigate climate change, they are two sides of the same coin."

Fedirko and Power write:

"In any society, individuals drive social norms that make up the collective culture. For instance, cultural revolutions don’t happen because of systems change; they happen when a group of people voice a compelling story that propagates across society and becomes a social norm."

Fedirko and Power suggest that understanding "how personal habits contribute to climate change can orient us toward advocacy for aligned policies and practices." But they pick up on Mann's point that "those who advocate for systems change fear that if we put too much focus on individual behavior change, we will stop holding corporations and governments accountable for their own impacts."

In the end, they conclude:

"Both sides are valid, and therefore, it is not a choice between the two. We need to do better as individuals and we need to pressure politicians and companies to adopt policies and practices that speed up the transition to a sustainable economy."

In another blog post, titled "Key Lessons on Enabling Sustainable Lifestyles," Dr. Lewis Akenji, the managing director of Hot or Cool Institute, writes:

"The question of individual behavior change versus systems change is a false dichotomy! Lifestyle choices are enabled and constrained by social norms and the physical environment or infrastructure. And history is full of heroes and communities that have come together to defy the odds."

This is a subject we have complained about before: How much of our lifestyle choices are baked into our urban forms? If you live in the suburbs, you are likely to need a car to get around. The economic system is designed to make us consume more of everything, but particularly energy the products of fossil fuels. 

Nonetheless, we can't keep blaming 100 fossil fuel companies for 71% of carbon emissions. Over 90% of those emissions come out of our tailpipes, chimneys, and smokestacks. We are buying what they are selling.

1.5 degree lifestyle cover
©. IGES/ Aalto University

In the end, while the Hot or Cool Institute says it is a false dichotomy or two sides of the same coin, it reiterates that you cannot ignore individual behavior. Power told Treehugger they are working on a 1.5-degree lifestyles project—a revision and update of the report that I based my book on that will take into account changes in carbon budgets and will include more countries than the original study did.

Power notes that many people are still struggling with the issue, and points to an article by Jill Kubit, director and co-founder of DearTomorrow, who writes:

"Movements that encourage and support individual change do not come at the expense of the push for social and political change. Rather than being pitted against each other in a zero-sum, either/or conflict, these two levels of change are not only both necessary but directly connected, influencing and reinforcing one another."

This issue is not going away. The fact remains that the world's richest 10% emit up to 43% of the carbon and that some people are going to have to give some things up. There are hard ceilings to the amount of carbon that we can put into the atmosphere to keep under 1.5° of warming and a limited time.

That's why we have to push for systems change and individual behavior change. I am going to conclude by quoting myself from my upcoming book:

"We need to vote for climate action at every level of government. We have to march for climate justice and we have to never stop being noisy, which is why I support the Extinction Rebellion and activist groups out there in the streets.
But in the end, I believe that individual actions matter, because we have to stop buying what the oil and car and plastics and beef companies are selling; If we don't consume, they can't produce. It makes a difference; I vote every four years, but I eat three times a day."
View Article Sources
  1. Aalto University, D-mat ltd. "1.5 Degree Lifestyle." Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2019.