There are two schools of thought about how to deal with climate change. One path is that without collective action — a great policy and regulatory push — we will never manage to curb emissions and climate change; all other action is a drop in the ocean and futile. The other is that if enough individuals change their lifestyles, then grass-roots action will force the differences we want to see in the world. Often, this is framed as a zero-sum game: it is one or the other.
Both collective and individual action are necessary to address a problem as complex and all-encompassing as climate change. And that is why we have included arguments in favour of both.
Individual actions’ meaning
There is no doubt that we need collective action; governments stepping up to the plate and companies reducing emissions. But governments, and the politicians who get elected into them, take their mandates from citizens. Businesses can only stay afloat if they are selling products that consumers want.
“On the mitigation side, this isn’t just a question of the decisions that the big powers of the world make,” says Bob Scholes, systems ecologist at the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. “That is incredibly disempowering. Our impact on the world, our impact on world climate, is a result of aggregated individual actions. Governments don’t do it. Companies do it to fulfil consumer desires; our desires.”
While small actions are a drop in the mitigation and adaptation ocean, they have a disproportionate effect on the person taking the action. Yes, something as simple as tending a vegetable garden will not make a significant dent in the country’s mammoth food wastage, even though it may save you a bit of cash and reduce the carbon footprint of that produce being transported to your supermarket and then your home. But it can make you feel more connected to the natural world and the food you eat.
This disconnect between us and the natural environment is a large part of the reason we have ended up in this climate quagmire in the first place. Being aware of the consequences of our actions is vital if we are going to survive climate change.
When Guy Midgley, professor of biodiversity and global change science at the University of Stellenbosch, teaches students about global change, he first gets them to work out their own carbon footprint. He also gets them to do one for their parents and grandparents, imagining what their lives are, or were, like.
“Our grannies were greenies,” he says. “My granny used to walk to the post office to get her mail, they had one car that they used to use maybe weekly, and they used to walk all over the place. They sourced food locally, I don’t think they ever flew in a plane. Once you start to put that together, you get a sense of the increasing carbon footprint.”
But he also noticed an important trend in his classes, one that speaks to the inequalities and social justice issues that are built into the fabric of South African society. “Black kids have lower carbon footprints than the white kids, and it is about travel; the ownership of cars and air travel. These are huge contributors to personal carbon footprints. There are two issues here, first, the more wealthy you are, the larger your carbon footprint; second, there is a disconnect between individual and collective climate contributions.”
If enough people start changing their behaviour, we can change the world. The current strike, in which schoolchildren around the world are striking from school to demand climate action, began as individuals speaking out about climate change and developing critical mass.
Governments and corporates
There is a possibly painful truth at the heart of this guide. However much we do as individuals, our action cannot match the actions of a state or corporation. Thanks to the scale of those institutions, they are where the future of life on this planet will be won or lost.
Let’s think about this in terms of pollution from cars. You can go out as an individual and buy the least polluting and most fuel-efficient, vehicle that you can afford. Talking up its attributes convinces your friends to do the same, after their cars have worn out.
This can make a big difference; people walking down the street choke on fewer pollutants and the world warms less. But this difference is nothing compared with the power of a government, which can force every single vehicle to pollute less, or of a car manufacturer deciding to make its cars run cleaner.
The problem that we have right now — and have had for decades — is that these institutions are run under the mantra of constant growth, based on exploiting seemingly cheap fossil fuels. But there are hidden costs; we pick up the cost of their pollution, which makes these industries extremely lucrative for companies, but expensive for us in terms of pollution, environmental destruction and the toll on our health.
With those costs borne by us, companies don’t have incentives to change their behaviour. These profits enable corporates to lobby politically, thereby backing and ultimately putting into power the kinds of politicians who share their worldview.
This is changing, far too slowly, but it is changing. Many corporations are trying to lessen their effect on the planet, be it because they are afraid of climate change (which will mean they have fewer ingredients, such as water, for their factories) or because investors (including citizens) want to invest in more ethical companies.
Corporations and governments have two often obscure but important powers. The first is in setting defaults. Most of us don’t deviate from a device’s factory setting. Often this is the “shiniest” setting, the one that makes the device work at its most energy or water-consuming setting, so it can, for example, clean your clothes faster. As individuals, we can decide to change the settings but research consistently shows that the majority of us don’t. So, if a dishwasher company creates a product with a default wash that uses the least amount of water and energy, millions of machines will suddenly use less. Multiply this kind of passive behaviour change by billions of devices and the effect adds up.
The other power of the state and corporations is in nudging our behaviour, altering how we think, live or work. Governments have entire units dedicated to nudging, working out how to make us use less energy, obey laws or call the police when we see suspicious activity.
Companies also use nudges. In the climate sector, energy-efficient companies are experimenting with devices that change colour and intensity, glowing a more alarming red or turning a calm green, depending on how much energy we use. According to tests done in the United States, this yields results with a drop of up to half of energy usage. This colour change triggers the part of our brain that craves satisfaction; chasing the calming green and the victory it represents leads to people using less electricity.
But, importantly for the purposes of this guide, each one of these institutions is made up of people.
After the “Dieselgate” scandal the leadership of Volkswagen decided to bet the future on electric cars. The company is investing more than a trillion rand globally in battery technology to make affordable electric cars. This is more than double what the next biggest investor, Mercedes-Benz, is spending on the technology.
With plans to have an affordable electric vehicle to market in less than a decade, this decision will change the motor industry. Competitors will be forced to up their game and everyone will benefit from the research and drop in prices of technology that will result from Volkswagen’s decision.
And it was done by just nine people. Each one of those will have been influenced by thousands of conversations and hundreds of experiences of how the world can be different.
This is the power of big groups to affect big change. But, each one of those groups is made up of individuals.
This is an edited extract from their book, South Africa’s Survival Guide to Climate Change, by Sipho Kings and Sarah Wild