This is a Test: What Matters More, Personal Responsibility or Collective Action?

Students provide interesting answers to the question of carbon.

students taking test

H. Armstrong Roberts/ Getty Images

It is a question we have been debating on Treehugger forever: does personal responsibility matter in the fight against climate change? Or is it all a ruse, a plot by Big Oil, to divert us from pointing at them?

I have been conflicted about this issue; I try to participate in collective action, but there is a carbon budget that we can't blow if we want to keep under 1.5°C, and most of us in the global north are profligate, while people experiencing material poverty in the south have so little. I have even written a book about the subject. I am a fence-sitter who thinks we should do both. Others are dismissive of this; climate scientist Michael Mann claims in his recent book, "The New Climate War," that "the emphasis on small personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed."

Them's fightin' words, saying that what I write and what I teach is counterproductive. So I put it to my students in the Ryerson School of Interior Design and the Faculty of Communication and Design in an exam question and got some interesting answers. I welcome readers' responses in comments too.

The Question

Climate Scientist Michael Mann has written that “a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable”, suggesting that individual actions are actually counterproductive. Some claim that "just 100 companies are responsible for climate change” and that collective action is what is needed. Others say we have to stop buying what they are selling, and that individuals have to take action, both to reduce their own carbon footprint and set an example for others. Which do you think is more important and why?

The Answers

Communications student Amy Nguyen stands with Michael Mann.

"In regards to what is more important, I would agree with Michael Mann in that governmental policy holds power over the corporate polluters that continue to pump carbon into our environment, no matter the personal lifestyle decisions of a group of individuals. While I agree that individual action has the power to spark change, making carbon-friendly choices is not a priority for many consumers, nor is it equally as accessible. For instance, when purchasing a new car going electric is not affordable for a large part of our population."

She calls for government action.

"If a governmental body was to state that no gas-powered cars are not to be produced past 2030, the issue is forced. The optionality of making these decisions is no longer a variable, and time is not wasted on changing individual habits or opinions around the climate crisis. Rather, it would push corporations steadfast in traditional production methods to rethink their process. Our climate goals require immediate action, but without regulation or policy meeting our 1.5 degree targets on a global scale seems like a romanticized dream."

Interior Design student Diane Rodrigues raises the Gorka gambit, the "they want to take your hamburgers and your pickup truck" argument.

"There is an emphasis on leading a lower-carbon lifestyle with a lot of finger-pointing as to who is truly walking the climate walk, or more so, who is leading it. Is it the carnivore that doesn’t take flights? Is it the vegan who travels frequently abroad? Appearing to force people to give up meat, travel or other things central to their lifestyle they have chosen to live, is politically dangerous and will give climate change deniers another reason to portray climate change advocates as freedom haters."

She calls for political action and a big carbon tax.

"Putting a price on carbon will result in people making money by reducing emissions. It must also be designed in a way that does not marginalize communities most at risk economically, which is why there needs to be political change at every level."

Philosophy student Daniel Troy says you can't have one without the other.

"I understand where Michael Mann is coming from, however the idea that individual effort is counterproductive in itself seems counterintuitive. Firstly individual effort is what makes up collective effort, if every individual decides not to go to a protest then the collective effort of the protest is redundant. Individual effort is what makes collective effort possible."

He believes individuals can set an example: "When you inspire others to do the same and practice what you preach is when you can actually inspire and create collective efforts, which can make the biggest difference."

Acting student Madeline Dawson blames the big corporations and their marketing.

"I think the use of advertising and (to some extent) propaganda has made out climate change to be the fault of the consumer and the average person. While obviously individual action and consumption is what essentially drives the production side of things, we are all in a sense victims of circumstance. We are continually marketed to and manipulated into embracing the culture that capitalism produces. Not only that, but our system is broken and built on systems of oppression and inequity, so people don’t have the choice to opt-out of this system, nor the voice to speak out against it."

But in the end, she believes that individual choices can add up to effective collective action.

"We’ve seen huge revolutions happen before because the majority of the population was getting slandered to serve a select few – think of the French Revolution. In fact, the wealth gap today is far larger than it was in 1774 (in the United States at least). If as a society our mindset shifted, and enough people boycott and make more sustainable choices, business and government will have no choice but to respond. We need to continue motivating people to make the small, big, and medium changes in their lives so that our voice is loud enough for money to listen to."

My Students Like Mike

In the end, the majority of my students believe collective action is the most important approach, with some calling for revolution. But they also tell me that they are giving up red meat and getting a bike. Few of them thought that these personal actions were counterproductive or hypocritical; they are part of many of their lives already for other moral and ethical reasons.

I used to think I had my feet planted on both sides of this fence; after listening to my students I am convinced that there is no fence, there is just one goal: cutting our carbon emissions, as even Michael Mann says, "every bit of additional carbon we burn makes things worse." Otherwise, this is all just academic.

I look forward to other comments and responses; I am an easy marker.