My Ever-Changing Views on Everyday Activism

If you’re wondering where week two, three and four of my ‘30 day awareness challenge’ went, I’ve officially decided to scrap that idea and transform this tab into something else. That is not to say that I’ve dropped learning about environmental issues altogether; I’ve just concluded that there are more effective ways to assimilate information than by simply regurgitating what I’ve read/watched/listened to on the internet on a weekly basis.

While I haven’t been able to intentionally educate myself every day through reading articles and watching videos, I have been progressively developing awareness about climate justice issues and environmental issues in general. For starters, I’ve graduated from skimming lists of ‘top tips to save the oceans!’ posts to (attempting to) digest denser academic articles—as suggested by a commenter on this post. The most thought-provoking piece I read was titled: Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World? as it inspired me to reconsider the meaning of everyday activism and reevaluate the scale of our well-intended actions.

Back in April, I conducted a TEDx talk titled “The Art of Everyday Activism”. During this hopeful speech, my arguments were backed by the psychological reasoning of ‘reciprocal determinism’—whereby an individual is both influenced by and exerts and influence on their environment—and social cognitive theory—the idea that observational learning can lead to the reproduction of both positive and negative behaviours. In this speech, I argued that individual actions have the capacity to instigate widespread change, while illustrating my points with the innovative creation of Impossible meat, the less-so innovative creation of my Instagram account, and the simple act of asking for no straw.

While I continue to believe that these actions can inspire gradual change, my encounter with certain articles recently have challenged me to reframe this mindset as naive. For starters, this podcast episode and this youtube video address the often unexamined shortcomings of the widely espoused ‘vote with your dollar’ politics. While I maintain my stance that voting with your dollar is a philosophy that applies to alternatives, it’s worth considering how by doing this, we may exercise and encourage classism. The podcasters argue that although the mindset is well-intentioned, the practice of “consumption-as-social-action” equates economic power with political power, and as a result erases the experience of those who lack as much economic power or choice. Despite the support of vegan or ‘sustainable’ companies, any form of consumption ultimately involves the exploitation of resources—a paradox in itself.

There’s a line to be drawn, however, between consuming for need and consuming for want. Using your dollar to vote for a necessity can be powerful—call it “consuming our way to a better world”. However, it shouldn’t be an excuse to excessively consume all products marketed as ‘sustainable’. There’s a difference between opting for the vegan option at a restaurant that predominantly serves meat and snatching another reusable bag off the rack reusable despite owning a stash at home. While both communicate that there’s a market for these products, the later corroborates the damaging impacts of consumerism, making it antithetical to the intention of low impact living. As Maniates writes, “‘living lightly on the planet’ and ‘reducing your environmental impact’ become, paradoxically, a consumer-product growth industry.” Chances are, this new reusable bag will go unused, and the water, cotton and emissions produced by this product will have gone to waste. The bottom line is that, unless you’re in a dire need of a replacement, buying new or buying things is never going to benefit the environment. Whether it’s a vegan snack or up-cycled phone case, consumption is consumption.

Evidently—and contrary to my previous held beliefs—good intentions don’t suffice in the realm of environmental activism. As noted in this article, good environmental intentions are swamped by the effects of money, and one’s environmental impact is primarily determined by structural features of one’s life circumstances, especially socioeconomic status.

Piles of research illustrate that the primary determinant of a person’s ecological footprint is not their attitude, but their income. As illustrated in this diagram, the difference between the percentage of CO2 emissions generated by the richest 10% compared to the rest of the population is stark. In fact, when comparing the indicators used to predict one’s carbon footprint, the self-prescribed title of ‘environmental activist’ often remains near the bottom of the list—trailing behind per capita living space, energy used for household appliances, meat consumption, car use, and vacation travel.

So, while self-proclaimed activists garner the most attention and appraisal for their environmental efforts, because they tend to target relatively low-impact pro-environmental behaviours—such as bringing a reusable cup and asking for no straw—the effects are only marginal. Among the most discouraging essays I’ve read includes this article by The Guardian, which states that a series of research papers reveal there is no significant difference between the ecological footprints of people who care and people who don’t. In fact, one recent article published in the journal Environment and Behaviour says those who identify themselves as conscious consumers ultimately use more energy and carbon than those who do not.

However, this data only measures the direct effect of their actions. It doesn’t account for their indirect impact—which could be achieved through their strong media presence, large followings, or ability to influence communities around them. Therefore, I’d argue that their collective impact shouldn’t be overlooked, and we shouldn’t discontinue these small acts because they’re not as profound as we expected them to be. I ultimately believe that individual efforts should be carried out in parallel with systemic change, and one person’s actions can create a ripple effect, extending towards their friends, family, and larger network.

But what this also broaches, is the individualisation of environmental degradation—the main issue that this essay aims to confront. In this article, Maniates speaks of the ‘depoliticization of environmental degradation‘ and argues that “our behaviour within the system cannot change the outcomes of the system. It is the system itself that needs to change.” Individual responsibility—something I had assumed to be the only solution, was challenged by his demand for the forces that systematically individualize responsibility for environmental degradation to be dismantled. Just as I was feeling like I wasn’t doing enough, I was rationalised into thinking I was doing too much.

Although I don’t agree with targeting, or redirecting, blame, I suppose it’s necessary in this case, where we’re forced to identify the root cause of these environmental injustices. As Heglar writes in this article, “the belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics.” As of now, we lack ideas and solutions commensurate with the size and nature of problems faced by the world’s environment. We should be vigorously exploring multiple paths to sustainability. But should individuals carry the guilt of the oil and gas industries’ crimes?

I’ll admit I’m feeling rather deflated after writing this, but I hope to take it more as an awakening than discouragement. Individual actions and everyday activism are crucial and have evidently spurred an environmental uprising, but with the UN announcing that we only have 18 months to reverse the devastating impacts of climate change—and recently, the devastating second IPCC report—these must only be the starting point, and not the end.