Lifestyle Versus Political Activism: Uniting the Factions Is Essential

We are a diverse ecosystem, and we each need to find our place.

there is no plante b, climate change protest
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Let me disclose something personal to you: I really hate it when people I love fight. 

I feel the same way when I see factions within the climate movement—each of which is doing incredibly important work—getting mad at each other about the topic of personal carbon footprints. That’s why I argued before that the systems change versus behavior change debate is getting really old, and it’s why I continue to believe we need to find a more nuanced and respectful way to have what is a complex and often emotional conversation. 

I was reminded of this recently when I read what I thought was an excellent article by Morgan McFall-Johnsen in Business Insider. It detailed how fossil fuel companies have weaponized calls for individual responsibility, using them as a distraction from systems-level policy interventions and other structural reforms that might actually move the needle toward a lower carbon society. 

My fellow Treehugger Lloyd Alter was less impressed. He rightly pointed out that the carbon footprint concept existed long before BP decided to amplify it. And he argued that reducing our own reliance on fossil fuels, as he has documented in his book on "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," is one way that we can put pressure on these powerful vested interests.  

From my (admittedly conflict-averse) perspective, this feels a lot like people talking past each other. And I can only imagine how delighted BP et al. are to have us fighting among ourselves. McFall-Johnsen’s article, for example, concludes by saying that individual actions really do matter and points out that many of the people that lean on the "systems change" side of things do still take significant steps to reduce their own footprint. 

Michael E. Mann for example, whose new book "The New Climate War" documents Big Oil’s efforts at deflection, has been very clear that he is not discouraging individual action. He himself, in fact, avoids eating meat and drives a hybrid car. He just doesn’t feel comfortable lecturing others to do the same, and he also worries that doing so will take the heat off powerful vested interests that have conspired to make high carbon lifestyles the norm. 

On the flip side, however, I can see how these arguments feel like they are minimizing the efforts of folks like Alter who have gone to considerable lengths to model a reduced reliance on fossil fuels. After all, neither Alter, nor Peter Kalmus, nor Rosalind Readhead, nor any other low carbon lifestyle advocate I have come across is really advocating that we’re going to achieve our goal through voluntary abstinence alone. Instead, they view their role as demonstrating what’s possible—and mobilizing others to start influencing and reshaping the system in any way they can. 

I have a modest proposal for a détente: We should welcome and celebrate those who are going above and beyond in terms of low carbon living and recognize their efforts as a useful experiment and a potentially powerful shot across the bow of the status quo. We should also recognize, however, that not everyone will be able—or willing—to go as far or as fast, and they may be better off expending their efforts on other pieces of the puzzle. We are a diverse ecosystem, and we each need to find our place

And when it comes to the movement as a whole, we need to start thinking about individual actions as strategic acts of mass mobilization. That means worrying less about everyone doing everything, and instead start building coalitions of broadly aligned actors that use differing tactics to achieve our shared end goal: the rapid demise of fossil fuels and other harmful and extractive industries. 

This is the conclusion I came to in my own book "We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now." It started out as an effort to debunk the idea of individual action being important, and instead became a celebration of a broad and diverse group of incredible people who are all, however imperfectly, trying to navigate a path through this mess together. 

Finally, I’ll offer one last word of warning: And that’s the need to remain relentlessly focused on the strategic outcomes of the actions we advocate for. It’s become common, for example, to compare current calls for low carbon living to the consumer boycotts that brought down the Apartheid regime in South Africa. We need to be careful with this analogy, however. On the one hand, it is a powerful example of how we can harness daily actions for specific systemic goals. On the other hand, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that shoppers were asked not to change every single thing about how they live—and instead to make specific, actionable tweaks at specific points of pressure that would hit the bad guys where it hurt. (It’s easier to ask someone to choose a different orange than it is to rethink some of the fundamentals of where and how they live.) 

So where are those points of pressure? How can we build consumer boycotts, or other strategic interventions, that maximize their impact? And how do we build common cause between the hardcore, no-fly, vegan dumpster divers, and the "climate hypocrites" like myself who care deeply about this issue, but who have yet to find the means (or the will) to rid ourselves of the yoke of fossil fuels? 

I don’t have all the answers yet, but I believe these are the questions we should be grappling with. It would be nice if we can do it together.