A major focus of the mainstream environmental movement is to encourage individuals to change their behavior, shrinking their carbon footprint by changing their light bulbs, buying local food, and driving hybrid cars. Some environmentalists present these minor lifestyle changes as the solution to climate change, but for a number of reasons, they will do little to solve the problems. Though individuals choosing to live slightly less destructive lifestyles is marginally beneficial, to stop climate change we need structural change.
Some of these changes are definitely positive and will be a part of a zero-carbon future. Deciding to eat local, non-industrial food is one of them. Industrial agriculture is incredibly destructive, requiring massive amounts of fossil fuels, for transportation, fertilizer, and pesticides. It has also lead directly to the dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, local organic food is luxury some can’t afford. While it is definitely good that the rich are supporting local farmers and doing something to reduce their enormous impact on the Earth, we need to have local organic food for all. Doing so will require a structural change, away from subsidies for industrial agriculture and towards a support and expansion of local agriculture, including urban farms to provide food for (and ideally be run by) local communities.
Other lifestyle changes are much less useful and do more to distract us from necessary changes rather than to help the Earth. Hybrid cars are a good example. Trading in your SUV for a hybrid SUV (or for a Prius) is an option that is only available for the rich, does little to reduce carbon emissions, and distracts us from the necessary structural changes our transportation system needs to be drastically changed. The construction and distribution of cars, including zero-emission cars, takes massive amounts of resources and reinforces our current car culture. Resources should be invested in finding ways to make cars unnecessary, and to create an equitable and clean public transport system.
Another much-promoted and misleading lifestyle change is saving our dwindling water resources by taking shorter showers, turning off the water while shaving, etc. While these are clearly things that should be done– and unlike the others actually save money– they do a great deal to obfuscate the real issues of resource consumption. More than 90% of water consumption is used by industry and agriculture, often for astoundingly bad ideas, such as mining coal and growing cotton in Arizona. (Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop– it takes more than 700 gallons of water to produce the cotton for one t-shirt.) The remaining 10% of water is split between households and commercial and non-industrial uses, such as golf courses. Shortening your showers will make little difference if we are still reliant on industrial agriculture and building golf courses in the desert. Similarly, turning off your lights makes little difference while aluminum smelters, which primarily produce cans and aircraft, are powered by up to 500,000 tons of coal a month. The average US household uses the equivalent of a half a ton of coal per month.
If we believe that personal actions are the solution to the climate crisis, it follows that individual actions are the cause of it. This is not the case. It is nearly impossible to live in our society without living an incredibly destructive lifestyle. Dropping out, Into the Wild-style will not help the planet. The person who has to drive to work to support his or her family is not to blame for climate change; the industrial capitalist system encouraging the growth of exburbs is.
Obviously, we should all do everything we can to live in the most sustainable way possible. This article is not an excuse to buy a Hummer. But we should do this because it is the moral thing to do, not because it will save the planet. If we are serious about stopping the destruction of the environment and the human suffering accompanying its destruction, it is our duty to work together and build a movement for the structural change of our society.