Doing the big things necessary to create a just world and a livable planet is hard work, and it can often feel like we're not moving fast enough. So it's understandable that many people turn their attention to the things they can do themselves: Buying food that reflects their values, skipping the plastic bags, or driving an electric car.
These personal decisions matter, but they are not going to bring about the transformative change we need to stop climate change and create a more equitable future.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating for folks to keep lights on when they leave the room, or to stop recycling. We should certainly make conscious decisions about how we manage resources in our own lives; it is important to adopt habits that will make human beings better for the Earth and all of the life it sustains. It is a great place to start. But the idea that we will save the world by getting everyone to buy green products and conserve energy is dangerously misguided. And it can create situations where advocates for systemic change are shamed for not making the personal choices that others have decided are most important.
more organics." They would point to the fact that Walmart and Target sell organic produce, which helps create massive new opportunities for organic farmers. "The market works!" they'd proclaim.
Except it doesn't. Even if everyone is able to afford pesticide-free produce, just purchasing organic is not enough to transform the food system. Here's why: While Walmart and Target were putting a few organic items on the shelf, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for big box stores, was aggressively working to stop GMO labeling, while other industry groups were changing the actual definition of organic through the National Organic Standards Board. And then there’s the fact that much of the organic agriculture has shifted to large scale farms that have the capacity to supply big retailers, while small farmers are still struggling to make ends meet.
Now that I work primarily on climate and energy issues, similar market-oriented "solutions" are gaining popularity in activist circles. At a recent eco-festival, one organization asked people to make commitments to stop climate change by picking stickers that represented various lifestyle choices, like turning off the lights when you leave a room, or walking to work instead of driving. While these actions help reduce fossil fuel consumption, we need to make much bigger steps if we are going to stop climate change from destroying life as we know it on the planet.
Not only that, this logic can be cynically deployed against those of us working to protect a livable future, when our calls to transform dirty energy systems are answered with retorts about whether we all make perfect personal choices. In one case, a California policymaker in Santa Barbara told a group of young climate activists that he could never stop extreme oil extraction unless people like them would stop driving their cars—essentially blaming his failure to stand up to oil and gas companies on the fact that they drove cars to the meeting. First of all, most of the oil drilling in Santa Barbara County is being done to export oil out of the area, so it wasn't even true. But even if it were, blaming the victims of a society that is built around automobiles does not let a policymaker off the hook for continuing to allow the extraction of fossil fuels in their community. Policymakers have a duty to be leaders, especially in regards to the health of the people they serve.
The only way we are going to put an end to fossil fuels is by organizing grassroots campaigns to pressure elected officials to stand up to corporate interests.
Focusing on personal or purchasing choices also affects how we talk about public policy. Believing that the discipline of the market is the most effective way to get the world we want leads people to support polices like carbon taxes and cap and trade, which are based on the theory that making the market more favorable to renewable energy will cause them to supplant dirty energy sources. People see the growth in solar power generation and electric cars, despite Donald Trump being in the White House, as proof that 100% renewable energy is inevitable. They point to large investors moving their money into renewables and away from fossil fuels as further proof that the markets will end climate change.
But if this sort of thinking prevailed in a place like New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo would have never banned fracking. Activists there didn’t focus on educating people about turning off their lights and walking to work—they waged a two-year campaign pressuring him to take action. The only way we are going to put an end to fossil fuels is by organizing grassroots campaigns to pressure elected officials to stand up to corporate interests.
Take a look at what activists did in San Benito County, where they pushed long-time anti-fracking champion Robert Rivas to victory in the primary election in California’s Assembly District 30. Rivas was the top vote-getter, despite the fact that oil and gas interests spent over a quarter of a million dollars on hit piece ads in the final stretch, thinking they would to make an example of him. In the end, it was the other way around—activists sent a clear message to other elected officials: If you side with fossil fuel interests, we will defeat you.
Personal decisions matter. But if we are going to change the world, we have to change the balance of power and overcome corporate special interests. If you make want to make one choice to help save humanity from climate change, make the choice to get active in campaigns to get active in campaigns to get the United States off fossil fuels.