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Individual Climate Action Without Systemic Change Isn’t Enough

For decades, companies have been lying to us about the power of individual climate action to distract us. They told us we could save the planet, while they were the ones killing it. 

In 2004, BP, the world’s 6th largest polluter, popularized the term “carbon footprint” by rolling out its personal carbon footprint calculator. The plastic industry spent millions selling us recycling so they could sell more plastic. Companies claim to be sustainable while funding the fossil fuel industry. 

And so while we’re all out buying metal straws and cloth bags, these companies are continuing to pollute our planet and actively lobby against climate change legislation without any kind of accountability. It’s not that individual action isn’t valuable, but it is a dangerous stopping point. We can’t equate environmentalism with personal consumerism and expect climate change to just go away.

Environmentalists can sometimes get too caught up on the concept of individual sustainability. Many sustainable alternatives are not inclusive and come with unfortunately high price tags. Having a plant-based diet can be expensive, public transportation isn’t always available, walking might not be safe. Sustainable clothing brands are pricey and not size-inclusive. And their affordable alternative, thrifting, isn’t designed for all bodies either, especially depending on where you live. 

Related: Combating Fast Fashion as a Plus Size Woman

In short, individual sustainability is sometimes a privilege. And placing the responsibility of solving climate change entirely on the individual plays right into what the fossil fuel and plastic industries want: to take the blame off of themselves. It also puts unnecessary guilt on the people who have to rely on unsustainable options because of their living conditions. 

According to a report by DIGDEEP, an organization dedicated to closing the water access gap in the United States, more than 2.2 million Americans don’t have running water or basic plumbing. 44 million more people don’t have clean water that’s safe to drink. So while we call for people to stop using plastic water bottles, we can’t forget about getting justice for people who have no choice but to use them. 

And while we talk about the importance of not using plastic straws to save the turtles – which is still important – let’s also talk about divesting from fossil fuels to protect the Black communities that have been ravaged by climate change and racist practices like redlining. 

Because we are undoubtedly experiencing a deadly and discriminatory climate crisis. A crisis that won’t be going away anytime soon unless we have real systemic change. 

And at the heart of this crisis are companies that just don’t care about the planet or its people, no matter how many PR campaigns they run about cutting their carbon emissions. So let’s go after those systems, not just the individual. 

To do that, we need a government that believes in climate change and science. We need leaders who will get us back in the Paris Agreement. We need leaders who have big dreams for climate solutions. So this November, vote for climate; our planet and our lives depend on it. 

And remember, environmentalism doesn’t require perfection. Make sustainable switches where you can, listen to vulnerable populations, follow the money, fight for social and racial justice, and don’t let companies distract you from holding them accountable.

George Mason Contributor (GMU)

George Mason University '50

Want to get involved, or have a story idea we should write about? Email us! hc.georgemason@hercampus.com
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