Individual action alone can’t save the planet. Here’s why
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“Shannon, I bring my own bottle, and my reusable utensils, and I recycle, and I compost . . . but I’m not sure that what I’m doing is actually making a difference. Is what I’m doing actually gonna save the planet?” I get this kind of question allllll the time.
Here’s the thing: individual action in isolation will not move the needle when it comes to stopping climate change. It won’t control over-consumerism, nor will it prevent trash and toxins from ending up in our oceans, forests, and ecosystems. Here’s what I mean by that: if you forget to bring your reusable bag to the grocery one time, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. And it doesn’t mean you should stop making environmentally mindful decisions in the future. It’s just one action in isolation. Likewise, if you only bring your bag to the grocery once and never do it again, it’s not gonna help our collective plastic pollution problems.
But collective individual action can have huge impact if we want to save the planet. You see, if everyone makes a collective decision to be mindful of their footprint, consume less, boycott plastic water bottles, or support ethically-made products, then the collective action of all those individuals has an impact. Likewise, when you decide to be more mindful of these things, others around you take notice and it starts to influence their own decisions as well, which creates a trickle effect or a spider web of positive actions.
To compound that idea, individuals can also affect change on 3 different levels: individual, business and government. And when you take positive action on all three levels, that’s when the magic really happens.
The 3 Levels of Impact That Save the Planet
Individual Environmental Action
Individual action has to do with your own personal footprint and the actions you take to reduce it. Here are some examples:
- taking public transportation instead of owning a car
- eating a plant-based diet
- shopping at the farmer’s market to avoid pre-packaged foods (and all the waste that comes with it)
- recycling and composting as much of your waste as possible
- carrying reusable bags, utensils, napkins, and a water bottle when you’re not home to avoid single-use waste
Business-level Environmental Action
Action at the business level involves shifting the market by spending your money in ways that align with your ideals. Here are some examples:
- choosing not to shop at Walmart because of their workers’ rights violations and use of unregulated sweat shops
- deciding to only buy fair trade items so you can support, empower, and encourage more businesses to reflect those ideals
- going vegan to remove monetary support from factory farms
- buying only cruelty-free beauty products to pressure beauty companies to stop animal testing
- starting your own business to create the ethical, sustainable norms and products you want to see worldwide
Government-level Environmental Action
Action at the government level focuses on influencing rules and regulations of a country, city or town. Here are some examples:
- voting for a city council candidate who’s main priority is to get community gardens in government housing areas
- voting for a president who believes that climate change has to be our #1 priority
- running for a local government position to ensure local manufacturers aren’t dumping toxic sludge into your waterways
- lobbying for plastic bag bans in your local area
Now, here’s the thing about the 3 levels of impact . . .
It’s all good and well to stick to just one level. But when you engage on all 3 levels, that’s when you really bring the house down. That’s what puts a stop to climate change, takes down the fossil fuel industry, and creates environmental justice for all.
Here’s an example of how action on all 3 levels can make a difference and save the planet
A bottled water factory sits right next to low-income government housing, just outside your city. These government housing residents also happen to have an unusually high number of health ailments, which are believed to be caused by inhaling toxic chemicals. These are likely due to the fumes being continuously emitted during the plastic manufacturing process. You learn just how bad bottled water is for the environment and how silly it is to buy. After all, your district has high water standards and you’re lucky enough to have clean, safe tap water.
So you decide to do something about it. First, you decide to no longer buy bottled water. Instead, you buy an insulated water bottle with a bad-ass leopard print on it that’ll be sure to catch some eyes.
Then, you write the local bottled water company and ask if they’ve conducted any studies on how their low-income neighbors’ health potentially correlates with their manufacturing of plastic. You also let them know that you’ll no longer be buying their water because of the unnecessary plastic waste it creates.
Next, you create a local “drink from the tap” campaign. You get volunteers to educate people about the quality of the local drinking water and how drinking from the tap can save them a lot of money.
Finally, you demand that your local officials enact a tax on every plastic bottle sold in your area, so that there is a monetary penalty for people who choose to buy bottled waste. That tax money can then be used to set up recycling programs in your area.
Collective action at all 3 levels will [without a doubt] save the planet
By combining these actions, you’ve made changes to stop your personal contribution to the problem (individual).
You’ve told the local plastic bottle manufacturer that you’ll no longer be supporting them. And you’ve made it clear that you’re aware they could be causing their neighbors’ health problems, and you plan on holding them accountable (business).
You’ve educated others about the issues and gotten them to take actions of their own (individual).
And you got legislation in place to ensure there’s a monetary penalty for anyone who chooses to buy bottled water (government).
Collectively, all of these actions will change the bottled water market in your area. It will discourage people from buying bottled water, and it’ll hold local producers accountable for any environmental or health consequences they create.
The power of individual action compounds when it is shared, observed, and adopted by others. And it is magnified when it is applied on all 3 levels. If you think of any revolution or movement in all of history, each one started with the thoughts, actions, and words of one person who, when seen by others, created a web of subsequent actions that led to change.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
Create that change on as many levels as possible.
The more individuals and entities you involve, the greater your impact will be.