Is individual behaviour the solution to climate change?

The short answer is: no and yes.

There is a lot of debate about the role of individual actions in relation to climate change. Allegra Stratton was rightly mocked for suggesting people should refrain from rinsing plates before they are put in the dishwasher. Michael Mann makes a much more serious point, saying that fossil fuel interests – having moved on from climate science denial – are,

“trying to convince people that climate change is not the result of their corporate policies but of our own individual actions” (Scientific American, January 12, 2021)

And of course, Michael Mann does not say that behaviour change is unimportant, but it should not be used to distract us from the much bigger actions that large organisations (especially fossil fuel ones), supply chains and Governments must take.

Whilst others stress the importance of systems change, and the coupled role of behaviour change. Lloyd Alter writes that behaviour change is important:

… because we have to stop buying what the oil and car and plastics and beef companies are selling; If we don’t consume, they can’t produce. It makes a difference; I vote every four years, but I eat three times a day.” (Treehugger, May 11, 2021)

And we have to recognise there are limitations to personal actions when not supported by the system. If I want to ditch the car and take an EV bus to go to work 10 miles away, I cannot do that if there is no EV bus (and maybe no bus at all, at the times I need them).

So, at whatever scale we look at it, and through whatever ‘lens’ we choose, we see the connectedness of actions by individuals, businesses, public institutions, local government, national government and multi-nationals.

I want to show at the scale of a town, how we might think about the power that resides in the hands of individuals; and they can possess multiple persona. Yes, they are consumers, but they are so much more. They are voters, employees, church-goers, parents, children, neighbours, and so much more.

If we break the silence and talk about climate change – not the science but what it can mean in terms of progressive action – it’s amazing how easy it is to start a conversation.

We need to think about the ‘agency’ that individuals possess, within the network of actors in a local community. The influence they have is much more than the narrow framing of consumerism. We see a richer systems view of influence and reinforcing feedbacks, with multiple actors involved, and individuals taking on a variety of personas. Here is a little illustrative doodle I created:


Each of these actors can be self-reinforcing too. The householder can influence a neighbour, just by chatting over the fence (I left out these little looped arrows, to avoid making the schematic too busy).

A climate action group (not shown) can – if it is being effective – engage with all the actors in this schematic by various methods and channels, by networking, engaging, and promoting interactions between them.

For example, holding a fair on house retrofit, and inviting relevant businesses, community groups, councillors and the local member of Parliament. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, my mother used to say!

This does not mean that personal action is unimportant – far from it – but when it can be seen as part of a collective goal to promote changes throughout the system, it is far more powerful. While personal actions today might only impact a fraction of the UK’s carbon footprint directly, indirectly it can have a much greater impact. System change (access to low carbon transport, help with decarbonising heating, etc.) together with personal choices is of course where we need to get to for a high impact on emissions.

The individual will also begin to realise the agency they have to promote not just change, but system change.

(c) Richard W. Erskine

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