In order to solve the climate change problem individuals’ choices may play a bigger role than many people think. But are we really willing to sacrifice our comforts in the name of the climate crisis – and what happens if we don’t?
Is it really possible to be bored by the end of the world? That is the first question Naomi Klein poses in the movie This Changes Everything, which evolves around climate change and is based on her book with the same title.
Throughout the movie, she returns to a fact, that she thinks explains more than anything else why we have the environmental problems we have today – namely the fact that we have all been raised with the belief that selfishness and striving after continuous growth is part of human nature.
When I hear this, I reminisce about an evening when I drank beer with some childhood friends last Christmas. At that time, I almost got into a fight with one of them because I didn’t agree with her thinking it was reasonable that she and her boyfriend took a plane to visit each other, despite her living in Norrland and him in Skåne.
It also reminds me of when my colleagues and I were travelling to Norway from Sweden, and they chose to fly since it after all is faster and/or possibly more comfortable, despite the fact that the bus was cheaper and Norway is close to Sweden. It makes me think of all the hundreds of reasons people can come up with as to why they are not vegetarians – and the reasons I use to defend that I am not vegan. Mostly, it makes me think of the summarized defense that “It doesn’t matter if I change, it’s the system that needs to change”.
Because even though it is an approach which has its points, I cannot help but think about how the fact that we humans continue to harm the environment does not depend on the fact that it would not make any difference for the planet if we started acting differently. In the fuzzier parts of my conscience it feels as if we just do not bother to care.
And that our passiveness is facilitated by the fact that few people in today’s society question whether you choose to act selfishly or respond to screaming polar bears with a yawn. However, this is a guess rather than something I know to be true. So in order to find out how it is, I decide to find someone who really has delved deep into the issue of how choices of individuals in regard to environmental issues matter – and what could explain why many people still are passive.
Someone who has written their Master thesis on this actual issue is Seth Wynes, a newly graduated researcher in Sustainability at Lund University.
In summary, he thinks that individuals’ choices probably will make a bigger impact on the climate’s future than many people claim. This, he believes, is because many of the solutions that determine the individuals’ choices is seen as a less important factor in order to approach the climate crisis – it also assumes that the technology will work, despite not being properly tested.
”The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, is seen as one of the big experts in this field. But in the majority of their scenarios, where we still are within safe temperatures in the future, we rely on technology that revolves around carving out and storing carbon dioxide”.
“Because this technology has not been widely tested I think it’s stupid to assume it’s simply going to work. If it doesn’t, we will be in a very bad position”.
He thinks that a better way to address the problem is by focusing on changing the individuals’ way of life. If you manage to do that on a broad front, you could namely make sure that the planet stays within a safe temperature, without being dependent on the technology that the IPCC claims is really working.
However, the individuals’ actions do not matter greatly in all areas. According to Seth Wynes, the challenge is making sure that changes are made in areas where they are most effective.
“For example, whether single individuals sort their waste or not seem to play a rather insignificant part in climate change. But, it’s good in other ways since it makes sure that materials are recycled”, says Seth Wynes.
In order to avoid an increase in temperature of two degrees or more, which would probably send us into climate chaos, Seth Wynes thinks that there are four important things for individuals to think about.
Number one is to give birth to fewer children, number two is to consume less meat and dairy products, and number three and four are to fly less, and to avoid owning a car.
Discussions on how many children other people should have are both sensitive and difficult, but eating less animal products and travelling less by car and airplane feels like new year promises everyone could rather easily keep.
So why do so many people, without a bad conscience, go on spontaneous weekend trips, buy cars as if it was mandatory, and consume animal products for a majority of the week’s meals?
Seth Wynes believes that we partly have structures working against us, which we almost have to overcome in order to act environmentally friendly.
“Say, for example, that I want to avoid flying but have a credit card that collects points every time I fly. Then I will have good reasons to take a longer flight at the end of the year”, Seth Wynes says.
He also believes that our continuous meat consumption may be related to cultural habits.
“Meat is still seen as something manly, and there is an image where you’re seen as slightly effeminate if you don’t eat meat. I actually believe that is the main reason why there is such a scattered cultural status marker that stops people from going vegetarian”.
In general, Seth Wynes thinks that society has put focus on the wrong things.
“Many see it as a deadly sin to throw garbage on the street, while the same people barely react to their friend flying to another country, and back, over the weekend. Despite the latter having a great impact on the climate while individuals littering play an insignificant role”.
But if the solution that involves relying on technology was uncertain because it is untried, is the solution not to trust that individuals change their way of life uncertain because humans enjoy being comfortable?
Are people in general actually prepared to travel for a couple of more hours, or eat less animal products, even if they know that by doing it they are making a difference for the climate? I am skeptical.
Seth Wynes stresses that his point is not that the efforts to stop the climate threat should focus only on the individuals’ actions. There are of course a lot of other important things.
“On the opposite, my point is that it’s stupid to put all eggs in one basket, and if we’re going to solve this we need to realize that acting is important on both a collective and an individual level”
However, Seth Wynes sees it as a big risk that people will be too comfortable to change. He thinks that this problem may be worked around by focusing on making key individuals change.
“When studies have been made on making people change their behavior for the better, from an environmental standpoint, you can conclude that a method you could call ‘the good neighbor’ has been effective. It revolves around making one person in an area, whom others look up to, change their behavior for the better. It often makes the others adapt”.
Though it is uncertain whether this method works as well when it comes to eating meat and driving cars since studies often have been made on more measurable things, such as lowering private consumption of energy.
Seth Wynes thinks there is no certainty that adapting to the climate threat will necessarily mean that we must lower our living standards.
“People in the Western world might keep their living standards at the expense of all the other parts of the planet. However, structures may eventually force us to change. But considering what we risk if that plan does not work, I would think it’s smarter not to bet everything on that it will happen”, he says.
After all, the answer to the question whether the system or the individual needs to act in order to avert the climate threat is that action is needed from both parts.
Furthermore, it can be rather hard to see where the individual begins and the system ends sometimes.
The movie This Changes Everything is generally advertised as a movie about systems rather than humans. Yet, as mentioned, the overall theme of the movie is the self-image humans have where we are inherently selfish. Naomi Klein says that it was when she realized how much it affects us, and that we are continuously fed this story, that she stopped yawning at polar bears.
She realized that things should be able to change if only you told a slightly different story. And towards the end of the movie we are suddenly faced with one such story, in Germany.
A country whose energy today is 30 percent renewable, and at the same time unemployment numbers are low. The switch to renewable energy has, according to Naomi Klein, not happened due to the government – but rather because the general public first protested against fossil fuels and then, through demonstrations as well as democratic elections, showed what they wanted instead.
And although it is a mobilization that feels far from easy to make overnight, after the movie I think that there is something to what Naomi Klein said about the lobby company Heartland, which flickered by in the movie.
They spend a lot of money on humorously denying the climate change, and Naomi Klein says that they do this because they have realized how much this could change if more of us actually started taking the climate threat seriously.
After all, maybe the challenge regarding climate change is actually about cultivating the ability to stop oneself from laughing and yawning when it comes to the climate.
So that we, in this way, can resist those who, with short term financial motives, try to depict the end of the world as a rather sexy and harmless alternative to us.
The most important choices an individual can make to counteract the climate crisis:
1. Give birth to fewer children
2. Stop/lessen airplane travel
3. Stop/lessen car travel
4. Stop/lessen consumption of meat and dairy products
Article: Virve Ivarsson
Translation: Elise Petersson