A while back, several of my friends started sending me articles about why individual action is meaningless when it comes to climate change. The gist of each piece was the same: when it comes to the climate crisis, individual action is insignificant. The problem is too vast. Systemic change is the only solution.
I appreciate the thrust of this argument on several levels. First, of course, is the kernel of truth contained within. Individual actions alone will fail to adequately address climate change. Of course that is true. Of course systemic change is needed.
But does that mean individual action is actually insignificant? No, it does not. What we eat, what and how much we buy, what we discard and how we power our homes and vehicles – all these and more contribute heavily to the climate crisis. In fact, Science Daily published a paper from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2016 that reported that 60-80% of carbon emissions are tied to household consumption.
Yes, systemic change is needed and plays an essential role in addressing household consumption. Governments need to prioritize renewable energy, energy optimization, conservation of nature and public transportation and fund those priorities. But we individuals must change our lifestyles, and a big part of that change must focus on consumption. After all, any system is made up of parts. We are the individual parts of the larger system that must change, and by making changes at the individual level, we collectively pressure the system to make the larger changes that are so necessary.
This is not to say that individuals are the cause of the climate crisis. Capitalist society – complete with its systems of colonization, oppression and its view of the natural world as resources for human consumption – is the cause of climate change. And large corporations, oil and coal companies and politicians funded by those corporations and companies are so invested in maintaining the status quo, these entities have done everything they can to make breaking with that status quo as difficult as possible. Climate change terrifies me because I know that if we do not act quickly, my children will face unbelievable suffering in the not-so-distant future. Climate change terrifies many of those in power in capitalist society because they know that truly addressing the problem means big changes to the systems that make them so much money (while stripping money, resources and rights from so many others).
Changing this system can seem a daunting task. But change it we must, if we are to have a hope of a positive future. And while systemic change is the ultimate goal, the choices we make daily as individuals are ways we either support or fight the system. We must not get bogged down in those individual choices or in spirals of shame. As this wonderful article points out, the corporations and politicians in power who benefit from the status quo would love nothing more than for all of us trying to address climate change to get caught up in fights over which individual actions make the biggest different. They’d love us to spend so much energy on personal changes, and on comparing who has the greenest personal lifestyle, that we lose sight of the ultimate goal – shifting the system itself.
I don’t see it as an either/or, however. It’s not either individual changes or systemic action. It’s both.
As I change the choices I make in my daily life and recognize the many ways in which the system favors unsustainable options, I feel angry and want to address those systemic issues. And when I am engaged in systemic change, it feels too dissonant to simultaneously live a carbon-intensive lifestyle. For me, the individual changes inspire collective action and vice versa until my way of being on my own and my way of being in community come together as a coherent, value-driven whole.
Five changes for the home
So, what can be done at the household level? The answer is, quite a lot. But if you’d like to start with just a few shifts, here are the biggest hitters for your consideration.
Consume less animal products & reduce food waste
Many, many resources point to the carbon-cost of consuming meat and dairy products. The positive on the flip-side of the problem is this: switching to a diet that leans more heavily, or entirely, on plants, is a significantly impactful way to mitigate climate change. In fact, Project Drawdown – the highly researched and trusted source ranking the impact of climate solutions – places plant-based eating as the fourth most important solution – very, very high on the list.
A special report released by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2019 explored just why shifting to a plant-based diet is so significant. The special report explored the ways land use influences climate change. In particular, the way we use land to produce food contributes greatly to climate change. The report estimated that 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of agricultural livestock.
The problem with the production of animal products, including dairy, is due to the carbon-intensity of the resources needed to raise these animals. Massive deforestation has occurred and continues to create grazing areas or land on which to grow the grain required to feed the animals. Cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas with more negative consequences than carbon, in their manure and gases. And all of those animals being raised as livestock consume large quantities of water and food themselves, an additional significant strain on the environment.
Some methods of raising livestock are much kinder on the planet than others. How grazing is managed makes a big difference. But we simply cannot keep up with the current demand levels for animal products in a sustainable manner.
The IPCC report estimated that if we all shifted to a diet much lighter in animal products, we could save an estimated 8 gigatons of carbon annually. The graphic included here is a helpful visual reference in considering the impact of your food choices.
Consider, as a family, leaning towards a plant-based diet. Not only is this practice good for the planet, it is also good for your pocketbook (meat and dairy are often big-ticket items on the grocery list) and your health.
Food waste is another big piece of the climate puzzle. Thirty percent of the food produced globally is wasted every year. In the U.S., the number is higher – we waste 40 percent of the food produced in this country. When you consider both the resources that go into food production (including packaging, transportation and storage – refrigeration being a significant climate contributor) and the methane released from food waste, it’s not surprising to hear that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter, right behind China and the U.S.
Reducing food waste is solution #3 on Project Drawdown’s comprehensive list – higher than a transition to solar! Start planning your food consumption for less waste. If eating out, be sure to take home leftovers. Eat out less – as studies show that large portion sizes in restaurants, cafes and the like contribute heavily to food waste. Plan your shopping and cooking and use leftovers. Use food already in the home before you shop for more. Try to use more of each vegetable and fruit, sending less peels and pieces into the waste stream. And when food products just cannot be consumed, compost!
Finally, help the food establishments you frequent reduce food waste. Gleaning initiatives are springing up around the country. This programs help farms and groceries send food they cannot sell to people faced with food insecurity. This link includes a great video on food waste and resources to help school cafeterias reduce food waste.
Weatherize and find other ways to optimize energy consumption
Yes, we must change how energy is made, shifting to renewable sources. However, alongside ensuring that the production of energy is renewable, we need to look closely at how we are using energy and find ways to optimize that consumption. Just as we don’t want to be using valuable resources to produce food that is not eaten, we must avoid wasting energy. “Energy optimization” is a new buzzword in discussions about climate solutions, and it should be.
What individual actions can we take to ensure that we are optimizing our use of energy? The place to start is hidden in the walls of your home: insulation. Improving building insulation sits at #31 in Project Drawndown’s ranking of possible climate change solutions. By keeping heat from leaking out of your home, improving insulation reducing the energy and emissions involved in heat production.
Better insulation is often surprisingly affordable and pays for itself quite quickly in reduced heat costs. Consider an energy audit for your home. Look to state resources for rebates for efficiency measures and recommendations for auditors. Often, very simple fixes can go a long way.
Other measures that can be taken around the home to optimize energy include switching to LED bulbs, unplugging large energy consumers when not in use (like the TV!), and making sure you are optimizing the use of your fridge and freezer, as that appliance is a significant energy consumer. This piece in Scientific America is a good, brief resource exploring the impact of home energy consumption and some simple solutions.
Consider solar and electric vehicles
Solar farms and rooftop solar sit at #8 and #10 respectively on Project Drawdown’s list of possible climate solutions. With the cost of panels plummeting and installers cropping up all over the place, solar is quickly becoming a viable option for more and more families. Again, solar panels can pay for themselves over time. Rooftop solar is still often the best option, but if you roof is not located in a prime position and you are not willing to donate a section of your lawn to panels, consider joining – or even launching – a community solar farm (CSF). Does your community have a closed landfill? This space could produce clean energy as a community solar farm.
As you consider solar for your home, it is important to also consider storage. At the moment, batteries are often still too expensive for many households, but these costs will fall, and it is important to keep an eye to the affordability of a battery, enabling you to optimize your solar production. Many homeowners switching to solar are also switching to electric vehicles (#26 on Drawdown’s list of solutions). These vehicles can act as a sort of battery, allowing the home owners make use of more renewable energy. The cost of EV’s is dropping, as used EV’s are more readily available. And EV technology and infrastructure is rapidly expanding. With improved batteries (carmakers are closing in on a 200 mile range) and an increase in charging stations, “range-anxiety” will hopefully become a thing of the past.
Yes, we must consume less. We cannot rely solely on technology like solar to fight climate change. But lowering consumption depends on a shift in consciousness, something that often takes time. While we work for this shift, we must act rapidly to transition to renewable energy sources.
Waste less – less food waste, less single use plastic, less packaging and don’t trust recycling
Stuff = energy. It takes energy to produce the stuff we eat and use, and it takes energy to manage the waste we produce. Wasted stuff = wasted energy. Furthermore, trash in a landfill produces methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This link provides important information on the energy associated with each phase in the lifecycle of “stuff” – from resource extraction to production to distribution to waste management.
The best ways to reduce waste are to lower consumption, reduce packaging and use every item you do consume for as long as possible. Before making any purchase, consider whether it is a need or a want. If it is a need, how can you find a way to source that need with the lightest impact on the environment? Is it possible to borrow an item to meet your needs? Can you purchase or find the item used? And how can you source the item with the least packaging and shipping possible?
If the item is a want, is it a want you will purchase or is it something you can pass over? Again, if you decide to make the purchase, look for the journey from production to you with the lightest impact possible.
A special note on packaging and single-use plastics: many items come with excessive packaging, all of which took resources to make and much of which ends up in the waste stream. Always attempt to find ways to reduce packaging. When unavoidable, can the packaging be reused or repurposed? For example, we use glass jars for leftovers and lunch containers. Vitamin bottles are really fun baby toys or musical rattles when filled with dried lentils and decorated.
Single-use plastic is awful. Plastic straws, drink containers, plastic shopping bags, packages, you name it – all of this plastic ends up as waste and, added to already named negative impacts of waste, plastics have especially far reaching impact after descared. A plastic drink bottle takes 450 years to break down, a plastic shopping bag takes around 20, and when they do break down, these items exist as chemicals and particles known as microplastics which are incredibly toxic for the animals and plants who consume them.
Plastics float down rivers and in the wind to the ocean, where millions of tonnes of plastic have formed giant floating islands. Many sea creatures have died after consuming bags or bottle caps or becoming tangled in plastic waste.
Fortunately, plastics can easily be reduced by using reusable shopping and bulk bags, frequenting stores that sell items in bulk (some include soaps and other household products!), and using reusable drink and food containers always.
Finally, a note on recycling. We’d like to think that recycling is a savoir when it comes to waste, providing us with an out. Those cans and bottles and jars and papers are all recycled, so we don’t need to worry about those products, do we? Unfortunately, this is not the case. To educate yourself about the myth of recycling, watch this video. And then look again to how you can produce less waste, including “recyclables” through reducing consumption, reusing and reducing packaging.
Consume LESS generally
There’s no two-ways about it – lowering consumption is perhaps the most important individual action we can take to address the climate crisis. Consumption is such a huge part of the puzzle, I’ve written a whole separate post about it here. Remember, it takes energy to make stuff, from resource extraction to production to distribution to managing waste. Reduce consumption by, as much as possible, buying only what you need, lending and borrowing items that you don’t need to own, reusing and mending what you do own, sourcing needs (and wants!) with used items, finding new homes for your own used items – and have fun (and save money!) in the process!