Behavior change doesn't make a difference (until it does)

2 minute beach clean
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 graham_alton

I've made no secret of my occasional frustration with environmentalists' obsession with individual action and personal lifestyle change. And I'm not exactly alone.

While there's nothing wrong with cutting out meat and dairy or living a plastic-free year, these actions run the danger of being more about personal virtue signaling than a strategy for actually reversing the environmental destruction we see all around us. You see, in a world where fossil fuels are subsidized, excessive consumption is encouraged and polluters don't pay for the true costs of their emissions, it takes dedication, resources and determination to swim upstream and seeking to live sustainably.

And while many of us do what we can, I'd be willing to bet that very few of us—if any—could claim to be living a truly 100% sustainable life.

Of course, I've said all this before. As have many others. But it's important to emphasize that I am not arguing against doing what you can to change your own behaviors and consumption habits. We just need to also except maximum pressure on the organizations, institutions and cultural norms that shape the behaviors and habits of society as a whole.

And it turns out that behavior change—when used strategically—can be a powerful tool for doing just that. Yes, your choice to bike to work is hardly an antidote to the global oil industry's continued dominance—but when you band together with others to advocate for your rights, your cycling becomes an actual tool for change. Yes, a #2MinuteBeachClean is insignificant compared to the mass of plastic that is clogging up our oceans, but when it's used as a tool to educate the community or pressure surrounding businesses to change what they offer, it suddenly becomes a powerful tool for change.
I was reflecting on this during a recent trip to Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. While the rest of my family frolicked in a beautiful, deserted cove, I spent a few minutes picking up trash to bring home when we were done. Of course, I couldn't get it all—and left wondering whether it really made a difference given the straws and little bits styrofoam that still lined the shoreline here and there. But it had left its mark, and it provided an opportunity to let the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce know that while I love their community and enjoyed our visit, I sure would appreciate it if they did something about all the styrofoam and straws being sold in and around the lake.

Of course, I've yet to receive a response. So I should probably find another way to get the word out. Maybe a blog post or something... In the meantime, though, this is your semi-regular reminder:

Individual behavior change won't save the world. But we won't save the world without it.

Behavior change doesn't make a difference (until it does)
How do we turn individual lifestyle choices into social and political leverage?

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