'We're All Climate Hypocrites Now' Calls for Both Individual Action and Systemic Change

Treehugger's Sami Grover interviews many individuals who work at reducing their personal carbon footprints while being effective climate activists.

we're all climate hypocrits now

Sami Grover

Treehugger writer Sami Grover recently wrote a post titled "Lifestyle Versus Political Activism: Uniting the Factions Is Essential" in which he describes his new 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. "

I was reticent and nervous about reading the book for a long time, having coincidentally just written a book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," which was all about the importance of individual action. In fact, as Grover noted in a recent tweet, "It's funny to me that yours and my books would even be considered to be taking opposite sides - where I see them as very complementary."

This is, in fact, very much the case. Grover makes the important point that the ability to make lifestyle changes depends on circumstance.

"Any attempt to promote greener lifestyle choices can and must accept that we are all starting from different places. What’s easy or rewarding for one person may be difficult or repulsive for another. What’s exciting and aspirational for one demographic might be too expensive or elitist for another. Choosing not to fly may actually mean fantastic rail travel adventures, or more time at home, for some. For others, however, it may mean compromising your career, disappointing family and loved ones or, as in my case, never visiting your parents or drinking proper beer again."

Grover actually does take individual actions seriously: He insulated his house, drives an old electric car, and has an e-bike that he tried to ride to work one day. His wife warned him "you are definitely going to die" and while he was riding, he was concerned that she was probably right.

This is the essence of the issue. It is easy for some, like me, to give up driving and just use my e-bike. I live close to downtown, I work from home, and when I am teaching, I can use bike lanes, albeit generally crappy ones, all the way from my house to the university. Grover couldn't go the same distance without taking his life into his hands. Different conditions lead to different responses. Grover writes:

"After all, it goes without saying that eating healthy food is easier if you have access to stores and money to spend. Likewise, walking is easier if you live near your destination. And, of course, biking is a dream if your streets are designed with the cyclist in mind. So far, so repetitive. Yet for far too long, the focus on voluntary behavior change and lifestyle “choices” has ignored the fact that those choices are often not really a choice at all."

Grover interviews many individuals who work at reducing their personal carbon footprints while being loud and effective climate activists. He notes that even Michael Mann, who has written that those who make a big deal about personal choices "are playing into the inactivist agenda" avoids meat and drives a hybrid. Everybody is doing it. And in the end, Grover and I end up in the same place: We need both systems-level activism and we have to make changes in our lives.

We both say much the same thing, for example, about bikes:

"We don’t need more people to ride a bike because it will cut their personal carbon footprint. We need them to do so because it will send a signal to politicians, planners, businesses, and fellow citizens. That signal, along with organized activism — and support for that activism from folks who aren’t yet ready to ride — will in turn help to change the systems that make cars the default choice in far too many situations."

It's activism that gets the safe bike lanes that Grover needs to get to work and changes the system. This applies to all aspects of the carbon footprint:

"The trick is to think about a low-carbon footprint not as an end goal in itself — after all, your carbon footprint is infinitesimally small when looked at in isolation. Instead, the calculation becomes a useful metric for identifying which behavior changes are significant enough to really put pressure on the wider system, and which behavior changes are onerously hard or unattractive and therefore may require a systems-level intervention."

So we are not in some bunfight of different views: We come to the same conclusion. As Grover writes: "What we do know is that humanity can and must dramatically reduce its collective carbon footprint."

We have to do it fast and we have to do it fairly. We have written different books but they are, indeed, as Grover suggested in his tweet, complementary. And they are both short and easy to read, why not try both?

"We're all Climate Hypocrites Now" is available in bookstores and from New Society Publishers.