One thing has become clearer and clearer the longer I am in the sustainability field. To have even the remotest chance of reducing the impact of climate change, we need action across all levels of society – government, business, and local communities – and that needs to start on an individual level.
Multi-stakeholder action is not a new notion by any means, yet despite its simplicity, it isn’t happening.
I recently read an article where the author argues that:
The dominant narrative around climate change tells us that it’s our fault. We left the lights on too long, didn’t close the refrigerator door, and didn’t recycle our paper. I’m here to tell you that is bullshit. If the light switch was connected to clean energy, who the hell cares if you left it on? The problem is not so much the consumption — it’s the supply. And your scrap paper did not hasten the end of the world.
I don’t buy this argument. In fact, I will go so far as to say it infuriates me.
It’s true, our scrap paper didn’t ruin the planet and the suppliers of fossil fuels certainly do bear a large portion of the global greenhouse gas emissions. But fossil fuel companies are not acting in a vacuum – they are influenced by consumer choices and governmental incentives, just like any other business.
This vicious circle of blame has plagued the climate change movement for decades. Consumers blame corporations, corporations blame the government, and the government shrugs and waits to see if voters actually care about an issue.
Blame isn’t going to help us solve climate change, action will. And here is the harsh truth. It is not our individual actions that have caused global warming – it is our individual and collective inaction.
That may seem extreme, but individuals lie at the core of all activity.
The components of every single multinational, country and community, are people. Individuals are the ones who drive these powerful hubs forward. It is easy to assume that power comes from a specific title or position, but that isn’t always the case. Power also comes from accountability.
Think about the people in your own life, whether in the professional or personal realm, that you admire the most. Do they take responsibility for their actions, or do they pass off responsibility to external parties? For example, will they say, “I took this decision and it didn’t go very well” or will they say, “this happened to me because of an external force that was outside my control?”
There have been many companies and governments around the world with bad leadership that have thrived, partly because individuals within the institution have taken responsibility and collective action to drive change.
We are sorely lacking this level of accountability in climate change.
As individuals, we are not holding our governments and corporations accountable for climate change. We are not even holding ourselves accountable.
It is an absolute devolution of responsibility and it has left us paralysed, waiting for someone else to swoop in and solve the problem.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Nobel prize nominee who has taken the world by storm with Fridays for Future, recently brought to light our inability to take action on climate change. She stood in front of the world’s leading politicians and influencers and said, “you are not listening.”
I’m not convinced that’s true. I think we are listening – we just don’t get it.
In stark contrast, children around the world have grasped this notion. By striking on Fridays from school to protest about climate change, they are clearly taking ownership. Instead of waiting for adults to take care of climate change (passive mindset, devolution of responsibility), they are taking to the streets and protesting against inaction (active mindset).
Teenagers aren’t the only ones, and frankly should not be the only ones, that take ownership of climate change. We all have an opportunity to change our mentality and embrace our individual power. And here’s the best part: it can really make a difference.
Let’s take the business community as an example.
Businesses respond to consumer choice and this has never been more obvious than with the plastics debate that has taken the world by storm. In a space of 18 months, most large corporations have set targets to eliminate single-use plastics, with many starting as soon as next year. What has been incredible to see is the ripple effect across all companies, whether consumer-facing or not. What started off as public concern for plastic waste has transformed businesses across every industry and has shown the power of individuals.
There is a similar effect in politics.
Politicians run on a short cycle, so they only prioritise actions that will have an impact over a three or four year cycle. If enough voters make an issue important though, it becomes a political issue. Imagine if climate change had the same pull in government as immigration did. What would our world look like?
As a society, we are really good at creating stories. For climate change, we have developed a narrative around the “big guys” being the only ones able to make an impact and solve climate change. (note: big guys being Fortune 100 companies and governments)
While they have the ability to shift the needle, we have the ability to influence the direction and the speed.
So let’s come back to the original argument – individuals at the core of action.
We are all able to influence change. Within every government, every company, and every community, there are hundreds of individuals who have an opportunity to make a difference. When we take ownership and responsibility for our own actions, we can catalyse change around us.
So if I leave you with one thing to reflect on, it is this: realise your power.
Realise your power over your own individual actions, realise your power as a consumer, and realise your power as a voter. It is all within you, you just need to embrace it and take responsibility for it.
And if you ever doubt the power of a single individual, go back to the 15-year old Swedish teenager who single-handedly started a youth revolution around the world.
Written by Eleni Polychroniadou