Can individual lifestyle change help to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, or is it an unhelpful distraction?
The role of individual lifestyle change in tackling the climate and ecological emergency (CEE) can be a controversial subject.
Some argue that focusing on the individual is primarily a means to displace blame and distract from the most important actions necessary to tackle the CEE. On the other hand, at COP26, the renowned climate scientist Johan Rockstrom highlighted household behaviour changes as a crucial but often overlooked opportunity for climate action.
Differing perspectives such as these can make lifestyle change an emotive subject, which can result in a reluctance to explore it. However, failure to consider these issues is likely to leave a gap in our understanding of both the causes of the CEE and the solutions.
Some things to make absolutely clear
Given this is a subject that creates a lot of heated debate, there are a few things I’d like to make explicit before going any further:
This article does not advocate for individual lifestyle changes in preference to or as an alternative to the actions necessary to bring about systemic changes — it’s an exploration of the value of lifestyle change alongside the kind of systemic changes Extinction Rebellion (XR) is pushing for.
Primary responsibility for taking the action necessary to tackle the CEE lies not with individuals, but with governments and businesses. Global fossil fuel subsidies almost doubled in 2021 and are expected to increase further in 2022. A 2017 report found that just 100 companies had been responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
Huge disparities exist between the environmental impact of richer countries (primarily in the Global North) and those in the Global South.
The need for change is a function of how much we currently consume, so the poorest are not the ones who need to change; in many cases they could enjoy a higher standard of living without creating the same kind of adverse environmental impacts as the excessive consumption of the more affluent. Not everyone needs to change their lifestyle — it’s wealthier individuals with higher consumption lifestyles who need to make changes.
System change is not a “get out of jail free” card
Pushing governments and businesses to act now is where our energies have to be primarily focused. However, this doesn’t mean that individual actions are irrelevant or unimportant — they remain an essential part of the solution.
The danger in placing all of the emphasis on governments and businesses is that it may invite people to conclude that what they do as individuals doesn’t really matter.
Any such such conclusion is extremely problematic for two reasons — firstly, many aspects of the climate crisis are driven by actions that may not be viewed as material at an individual level, such as buying a plastic bottle of water, but are having a devastating impact when replicated more widely.
The second reason is equity and climate justice — we currently have a situation where some people's lifestyles are contributing far more toward exacerbating the CEE than others; in many cases those contributing the least are suffering the worst consequences. There’s a clear moral case for those with the highest consumption lifestyles to make changes to address these inequalities — an argument that individual lifestyle choices don’t matter risks being used to diminish the importance of tackling these inequalities.
What do we mean by individual lifestyle change?
It’s actually quite difficult to define boundaries for individual lifestyle change. This is because none of us exist in isolation — much of what we do involves interaction with others and rapidly drifts into the collective. A very simple definition is: “things we can do as an individual to help address the CEE”.
This encompasses lifestyle and consumption choices, such as changing our diet, travelling less or in different ways, and reducing waste. It also includes actions such as making energy efficiency improvements to our home.
Some individual choices will have very limited impact, but others will achieve more. The 1.5 Degree Lifestyles Report published by the ‘Hot or Cool’ think-tank, explores the main sources of emissions and how these vary between countries.
Reducing our carbon footprint is an expression often used in relation to these kinds of lifestyle changes and you can find out more about that in this article. However, it’s important not to lose sight of all the other things we can do to reduce our negative environmental impact and alleviate aspects of the CEE.
For example, rewilding a garden to provide a better habitat for insects and other animals can make an important contribution towards tackling the loss of biodiversity — and if enough people do this, it will have a much bigger impact.
There are clearly many other things we can do as individuals beyond lifestyle changes — perhaps the best known example was Greta Thunberg’s school strike, which grew from a one-person protest into a massive global campaign.
We can become more politically active or get involved in local community projects. However, many of these quickly blur the distinction between what we can do as individuals and collective activities involving others. All have important roles to play, but in this article I’m primarily focusing on the kind of individual lifestyle choices that some of us may be in the privileged position to make right now.
Separating individual and more systemic changes can be both unnecessary and difficult to do — however, given the frequency with which questions such as “what can I do about climate change?”are asked, this remains an important issue to explore.
Why the controversy?
The central reason for reservations about focusing on individual lifestyle change is the way in which it has been misused by some businesses and politicians.
An article on the origins of anti-litter campaigns illustrates how companies shift the debate away from their own roles and responsibilities by exploiting a focus on individuals’ actions.
Probably the most infamous example of this is BP's role in creating and promoting the concept of individual carbon footprints. In 2004, BP (British Petroleum) launched a carbon footprint calculator which was supposed to help people measure their own environmental impact and try to reduce it.
Whilst this might sound like a good thing, it was seen by many as a cynical attempt to place the focus and responsibility for reducing emissions onto ordinary people. Meanwhile, BP continued producing massive amounts of pollution — in 2019, BP came sixth on a list of companies responsible for the most carbon emissions over the preceding five decades —producing over 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent during this period.
The fact that a focus on individual change has been misused in this way provides valid reasons for concern and scepticism. Too much focus on lifestyle change does have the potential to divert energy from achieving the systemic changes that are essential to tackle the CEE.
However, this doesn’t alter the reality that individual choices can collectively have an impact. Further to be addressed are the massive disparities in individual’s contributions to creating the climate crisis; these are crucial to understanding and fighting the CEE and cannot be ignored. Those with the highest consumption and environmental impacts have the greatest opportunity and a responsibility to take action and make changes.
What is XR’s position?
XR aims to overcome the unwillingness of governments and businesses to take the action necessary to address the CEE.
The primary method XR utilises to try and achieve this is mass civil disobedience; there are many historical examples which show how civil disobedience can be a very effective way of achieving change at the rapid speed demanded by the current crisis.
XR does not focus on promoting lifestyle change as it doesn’t believe this represents the best way of achieving its aims at the pace required.
There are a couple of other reasons why the subject of individual change is challenging for XR:
XR does not advocate specific solutions to the CEE, as it believes these should be decided by Citizens' Assemblies (CAs). Promotion of specific changes by XR (at either the individual or systemic level) could, to some extent, entail pre-empting the decisions of the CA — for example, Animal Rebellion established itself as a separate entity to XR to enable it to advocate for specific changes in relation to diet and animal rights.
However, given the contribution of individual lifestyle and consumption choices to the CEE, an overall solution that does not involve significant changes in these areas is highly improbable. It could therefore be argued that supporting some forms of individual change as a general principle doesn’t directly conflict with the concept of CAs.
Blaming and shaming
XR has Ten Principles and Values, the eighth of which is: “We avoid blaming and shaming”. It goes on to say: “We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame”.
Whilst not necessarily in conflict with individual lifestyle change, the danger is that focusing on what we can do as individuals can very easily turn into blaming and shaming people for not making changes.
As mentioned previously, the massive global inequalities in wealth that currently exist create huge disparities in individuals’ environmental impact. Those who have and consume the most are the ones with the greatest opportunity and responsibility to make changes. In this context, promotion of individual change in a way that avoids blaming and shaming isn’t easy.
It’s also important to emphasise that another of XR’s principles is about welcoming everyone — there’s no requirement for individuals to make particular lifestyle choices in order to get involved with XR. However, it would be a mistake to infer from any of this that XR is somehow opposed to individual change or views it as having no value — individual change does have a critical role in creating solutions to the CEE.
A false dichotomy
Individual lifestyle change and the kind of collective direct action to achieve systemic changes promoted by XR are not mutually exclusive or in opposition to each other. In reality, both provide part of the solution and they are complementary.
Focusing purely on things we can do as individuals is never going to resolve the CEE, but they can make an important contribution — it only becomes negative if it distracts from or prevents other action.
Whilst XR does not focus its energies on promoting individual change, most people within XR take actions on a daily basis that reduce their own environmental impact. It’s not about choosing one option over the other — we need to do both.
What this article hopefully illustrates is that there aren’t clearly defined boundaries between individual and collective actions — we don’t exist in a vacuum and what we each do impacts on others. Trying to put different elements of the solution into boxes isn’t easy and doesn’t necessarily achieve much.
What are the benefits of individual lifestyle change?
We don’t need to wait for changes in legislation or for others to act. We may be able to make changes as an individual today.
Individual behaviour changes can be the simplest way to make the transition from being a passive observer of the CEE to actively trying to prevent it.
Taking an initial step, however small, can provide a stepping stone into other forms of activism and a way to connect with communities of like minded individuals.
The impact of individual choices aren’t limited to their direct environmental impact — for example, choosing to ride a bicycle can achieve more than just the carbon reduction resulting from not driving: it’s healthier for you and others, and it’s cheaper. Taking climate action at both an individual and a collective or societal level can create multiple co-benefits.
You are not powerless
When we make a conscious effort to change our behaviour it can help us see that change is possible and encourage us to do more.
However, it’s essential that we’re realistic about how much impact our individual actions can have. We need to be careful not to devote so much time and energy to the minutiae that we lose sight of the big picture and the systemic changes that need to happen. We must never fool ourselves into thinking that a few small changes will be sufficient to tackle the CEE.
In addition to the utilitarian argument which focuses purely on the outcome achieved, there’s also a moral argument for individual action. Prioritising our own needs above those of other life on our planet and future generations often creates feelings of guilt.
Making different choices, even whilst acknowledging the limitations that making those changes may have, can help address these feelings. Doing something, however small, can make us feel better and help deal with climate anxiety and grief. This can be a good thing, as long as it doesn’t evolve into broader complacency and inaction.
Making individual choices often involves educating ourselves about the CEE and the things that can be done to tackle it.
Sometimes we’ll discover that the solutions aren’t something we can do much about as an individual, but in other cases we can. A positive aspect of educating ourselves, is that gaining a greater understanding of the harm resulting from our choices can make change much easier. One of the primary aims of the XR Global Blog is to raise awareness of the CEE by sharing perspectives from around the world — here’s some other recommended reading.
Fully appreciating the negative impacts of our actions can shift the balance of pros and cons we associate with an activity — this can reduce our desire to engage in activities that have harmful impacts on the environment.
Having a realistic view of how much impact our individual choices will actually make can also help prevent us from beating ourselves up too much about things we don’t manage to do. An appreciation of the limitations of individual lifestyle change can help us understand why other forms of action in order to achieve systemic changes remain essential.
Starting Conversations and Influencing Others
When we make changes as individuals, other people are likely to notice these changes, which can open up conversations. Such conversations provide an opportunity to raise awareness and educate others. People are often more likely to listen to and be influenced by friends, family members, neighbours, colleagues and other people they know and trust than complete strangers.
When we amend our own behaviour we also demonstrate that change is possible and can inspire others to take action. Modelling the change we want to see is known as “prefigurative politics” and has a really important role to play in starting conversations and shifting the Overton Window (a term used to describe the range of ideas perceived to be politically “safe” or acceptable).
Through individual lifestyle choices we may be able to influence others to take similar action, or at least to consider possibilities outside their current frame of reference. In fact, research has shown that climate communicators and progressive policy advocates are more likely to be listened to if they are making lifestyle changes in addition to their work.
Our influence isn’t limited to other individuals — we can also influence governments and businesses by demonstrating demand for policy change or more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Does lifestyle change help?
Returning to the opening question — “can individual lifestyle change help tackle the climate and ecological emergency or is it an unhelpful distraction?” — the answer is potentially yes to both!
Individual lifestyle change does have an important role to play in tackling the CEE; however, we need to appreciate the limitations of what it can achieve, and not allow it to get in the way of other actions that are essential to tackle the CEE.
Yes, some governments and businesses have tried to use lifestyle change to shift the debate away from the role they play — we need to be vigilant about avoiding falling into this trap — but at the same time this risk shouldn’t be overstated. These risks need to be considered alongside benefits of individual change, such as educating ourselves and influencing others.
Lifestyle change also has a role to play in addressing climate injustice — the extreme inequalities that currently exist mean that a large proportion of the world’s population have neither the same need nor the ability to reduce their environmental impact as the most wealthy. Those with the highest consumption lifestyles have both the most opportunity and also the greatest moral responsibility to make lifestyle changes.
The key point to re-emphasise is that whilst individual lifestyle changes from those with the highest consumption lifestyles are a necessary part of the solution, the primary focus has to be on pushing for the big systemic changes that are essential to prevent ecological and societal collapse.
For example, shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy and defunding fossil capital is the kind of change that’s vital; this is down to governments and isn’t something we can achieve as individuals. We need to come together to pressure those in power to make these big changes, and that’s exactly what XR was created to do.
So, thank you to everyone taking action to try and reduce their environmental impact. All of these efforts do matter, but they will never be sufficient on their own. That’s why we need you to join XR in demanding that governments and businesses tell the truth, act now and go beyond broken, conventional politics.