Is the Climate Movement Too Focused on Sacrifice and Heroics?

We zero in on the things that feel impactful—rather than on the actions that would have the most lasting actual impact.

Airplane flying above the clouds leaving a smoke trail

George Pachantouris / Getty Images

The other day, I came across an eye-opening statement. 

According to Make My Money Matter—a United Kingdom-based organization focused on greener and more ethical investing—switching your pension to a "green" fund can have 21 times the combined impact of giving up flying, going vegetarian, and changing your electricity to a renewable source. 

It’s a bold claim, and it’s worthy of promotion in and of itself. According to Dale Vince, whose greener football team and renewable energy empire we have covered before, moving your money is one of the single biggest ways that we can send signals out into the world: 

“One of the biggest decisions we all make is where to invest our pension – so it’s very important we all repurpose the pension industry and make sure it invests our money in better outcomes that protect the future of our planet.”

It also points to a broader discussion about how we can most effectively take action in our personal lives. 

From dumpster diving to veganism to "flight shame," it sometimes feels like the most talked about climate actions are those that most visibly and dramatically represent a break from the status quo. In other words, we zero in on the things that "feel" most impactful—rather than on the actions that would have the biggest and most lasting actual impact. 

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with going vegan, living car-free, or choosing not to fly. These are important steps in cutting carbon, and cutting carbon is exactly what we need to do. My concern, however, is that centering our discussions on these actions can lead to a skewed sense of where our greatest power lies. 

Sure, it would be great if every single person installed solar panels on their house, for example, but many simply do not have this option. Yet simply switching power companies to one that favors renewable energy will provide many of the same societal benefits. It just doesn’t feel like it’s making as big of a difference. 

Similarly, going flight-free creates a significant impact in reducing your personal, travel-based emissions—but there are many ways to reduce reliance on aviation, even if you’re not yet ready to not fly. 

From a plumber who conducts his business by bike, to the heroes living a 1.5-degree lifestyle, I have great admiration for the heroes who are going the extra mile. And I hope that more people will be willing to take these leaps. I worry, however, that we sometimes give the impression that climate action is an all-or-nothing equation. While doing the "hard stuff" can have a real, meaningful impact, it’s easy for our culture to overlook the relatively easy but immensely powerful actions that would lead to a wider, society-wide impact.

As climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar has written before, the worst thing you can do is nothing. And sometimes the best thing you can do is simply to call your pension provider and move where your money is invested. 

You can always go dumpster diving tomorrow.