What are individual actions worth?

I read an article over at Green Building Advisor.com, with the title/subtitle “Is the Green Movement Just Spinning Its Wheels? Can individuals make a real dent in climate change, or does our future hinge on government intervention?”

It was a fairly gloomy take on things. Yeah, forgoing the plastic bag at Walgreens doesn’t probably count for too much.  Prius?  Ok, nice, but a giant gleaming hunk of technology like that is hardly small-footprint in total.  Ride your bike to the store?  Fantastic, but, as the article says, “sadly, individual action does not work.  It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough.”

Well that sounds fairly pessimistic.  And also fairly accurate.  So what do we do?  I penned this comment, while thinking about the Ghandi misquote, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Especially in the absence of collective action, individual action seems all we’ve got. While it may be a drop in the bucket, or even “worthless” in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think one should overlook how individual actions can start to change the conversation, foster new norms, and facilitate collective action.

I put solar on my house last year and did an insulation retrofit. It will not solve global warming. But my “sphere of influence” has gotten an earful from me about how well it’s worked, and has learned something about renewable energy via osmosis. We’ve had talks about energy, conservation, renewable generation, and climate change. It has furthered the conversation. Some people I know are considering doing the same, and more than one has probably taken a look at their electric bills with a more critical eye. When it comes to politics, they might be slightly more likely to support a candidate who is more willing to try to tackle this.

I suppose the only drawback to individual action is if it is too cost-intensive – if that residential solar PV rebate took money which could have been used more efficiently elsewhere, but I don’t know if that can be judged too well at this point.

Sometimes I do think it’s too late, but I don’t know for sure. Have we driven off a cliff, foot still on the accelerator, or is there still some chance that stopping the inputs will increase chances of a better outcome? Maybe nothing we do will change the trajectory we’ve set, but it still makes sense to me to stop actively pushing in the wrong direction. Maybe it’ll buy some time, or affect the outcome in some small way. It’s all I know to do…

What do you think?  Are individual actions spitting in the wind?  If you wish to bring about any societal change, should you ignore your own tiny life, and work for something bigger?  Or do you start small and live what you believe?  Or both?

2 thoughts on “What are individual actions worth?

  1. You are right. Seeing what others do is very much like the “broken windows” research that helped clean up New York. People behave like others around them.

    Another example (I’ve only read about this, no personal experience) is clean cars in Australia. Apparently if your car is clean then you must have wasted water to clean it, so everyone’s car is dirty and those that have wasted water stick out and are socially frowned upon. One person saving water by not washing their car is nothing, but as the practise spreads it does add up.

  2. This happens in .au but, in my experience, only in drought and then it’s kicked along by local government water use restrictions – limits on watering gardens etc. Right now, the car washing businesses seem to be doing pretty well.

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