Confirmed: Personal Actions ARE Enough To Turn the Tide

The other day I read in my local paper: World carbon pollution fell by 17% at the peak of the pandemic. (Seth Borenstein, AP; reported in Daytona Beach News-Journal). During one week in April, U.S. carbon emissions dropped by a THIRD. Other countries saw similarly high drops at the peak of the shutdown.

If we keep up this level of reduction, it will be enough to get us on track for a much healthier planet — with cleaner air, clearer water, more abundant wildlife — and keep us within the 1.8 celsius rise which scientists seem to agree will ward off the most dire impacts of climate change. Measurements aside: In just the few short weeks of the shutdown, people everywhere began to observe first-hand the environmental benefits. Clearer skies, more birds and other wildlife in their yards, (fill in the blank with whatever you noticed). This is important because what people can observe firsthand, leaves a lasting impression that may be the most powerful motivator to make lasting changes in their behavior.

Alas, with the move to resume “normal” economic activity, scientists have discovered that the emission levels are now heading back up rather quickly.

“That underscores a simple truth,” said a climate scientist quoted in the article. “Individual behavior alone … won’t get us there. We need fundamental structural change.”

Well … Yes and no. The thing is, it was in fact changes in individual behavior that slashed the carbon emissions. It wasn’t a “Green New Deal,” of some environmentalists’ fantasies, where the government snaps its fingers and just mandates an all-out switch to renewables. Or implements a massive cap-and-trade policy; or starts subsidizing the heck out of magic green car factories.

Nope, none of that. The government basically just told the masses to stay home, and what followed was an unintentional experiment in what happens to the environment when billions of people suddenly stop flying in airplanes, drastically reduce their car trips, and quit buying nonessential goods.

The government didn’t tell power companies to slash their production of electricity; didn’t tell gas stations to pump way less gas. Billions of people, in effect, told them that, simply by staying home. (Yes, in many places, bars and certain other businesses were government-ordered to close — but many businesses were moving in that direction anyway as they felt the revenue drop-off from people staying home.)

Granted, the staying-home was by government order. So in that sense, yes, the change was initiated in a top-down way. But the government order was just the “ignition,” so to speak. The actual environmental impact was a bottom-up thing, rippling upward and outward from the personal and household level. And what it showed was that personal and household action (because not driving, not flying, not buying are all still actions) not only makes a difference, but in fact it is enough to get us out of this mess we’ve made.

I have always believed that at the end of the day, it’s everyday people and their wallets who really rule the world. And the past few weeks have shown that. Bureaucratic institutions have retooled themselves (online schooling; big corporations suddenly seeing their way to allow employees to telecommute; even the Supreme Court hearing arguments by telephone). Local food supply lines have emerged. Businesses have devised new ways to deliver their services. All in response to the almighty wallets and shifting circumstances of Joe and Jane Everyday Person.

As for the assertion that we need fundamental structural change — well, that structural change actually was/is starting to happen, as a result of people staying home. Even climate activist Bill McKibben (who asserts that personal change is not enough) gives evidence that the personal changes have been leading to structural change.

In his “Climate Crisis” newsletter for the New Yorker magazine, McKibben mentioned an interview in the Financial Times, with Bernard Looney, the C.E.O. of BP: “Looney noted that as crude prices have plunged, renewable energy projects had been able to attract funding, suggesting the pandemic has weakened the investment case for oil. ‘It’s the model that is increasingly respected and admired by investors as being resilient and having a different risk profile,’ he said.”

This to me is major news. So many of us environmentalists have been stuck in the self-defeating attitude that “There’s no point in changing our personal behavior, as long as (fill in the name of your pet big bad wolf, such as China, the fossil-fuel industry, the plastics industry, the government, the airline industry, banks, whoever/whatever) is doing what it does.”

Actually, it’s the reverse. There’s no incentive for “them” to change their behavior, as long as “we” keep buying their stuff; keep feeding the existing structure. Yes, it takes self-discipline and willpower. Should I jet off to Switzerland or Dubai for the weekend to see my granddaughter’s soccer game just because I can? (Key point: Those of us who have the money and other resources to make such privileged choices, need to work all the harder to rein ourselves in. Yep, good ol’ willpower and self-discipline.) (Note: This is just a hypothetical example; I don’t have a granddaughter. But I hear of this kind of thing, or the equivalent, all the time.)

And yes, it is frustratingly impossible to be perfect. (I hate how much plastic packaging comes with my food even when I strive so hard to avoid it.) But no one ever said restoring our planet to health would be a cushy gig. We now have numeric AND visually observable evidence that personal behavior is enough to make the shift. As self-appointed environmental leaders, we are the ones who can keep the momentum going, or not.

This blog, and my book by the same name, are based on two main premises: 1) Personal/household actions not only make a difference; they are the only things that really can. And 2) The path of conscious household thrift and the path of low-footprint living are two overlapping paths. If you’re on board with these ideas, now is a great time to really test them out. (“Test them out” because, at the end of the day, I could be wrong. But so could those who say we can’t make a difference without sweeping top-down structural change. And at least my way allows us to take action right now, and see results.)

Now that the government-imposed controls are lifting, we have to supply our own motivations — our own controls — to keep up the momentum. Structural changes will unfold in our wake like a red carpet. (Er, a green red carpet.) Throughout this blog, and my book, are examples of personal, intrinsic motivations you can tap into, and inspire the people around you to tap into.

Deep-green troops, mobilize!