climate change

Can an Individual’s Choice Make a Difference in the Face of Global Warming?

5 April 2018
Personal Behaviour - Lincoln Glasby

We all want to believe that we have some ability to affect the world through our actions. That we are all at the mercy of ‘the system’ sounds like a conspiracy theory, and
to grapple with the idea that our individual actions are meaningless in the grand scheme of things is to look our own smallness and mortality directly in the eye.

This may be one of the reasons that individual behaviour is so often proposed as the solution to climate change. Another is probably that it is achievable—waiting on governments and corporations to change feels hopeless at times, whereas we can all make small changes to our own lives and feel that work is happening. But does it actually make a difference?

Professor Richard Eckard, the Director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre at the University of Melbourne, believes it does. However, this is not because of the action taken by one person—your KeepCup is not the one thing standing between us and the apocalypse. Instead, it is the collective power of individual efforts that he sees as making a difference.

“Collectively,” he said, “if we all start changing our behaviour, we change the demand on the supply chain and corporations then change their behaviour in response.”

While behaviour change may put pressure on politicians, they are more impacted by our opinions and votes than by what we do in our day-to-day lives. It is corporations who must take notice of what people consume. This is in some ways an opportunity, said Eckard. “Fifty-one of the top 100 entities in the world are corporations, not countries. In other words, the largest economic drivers in the world are no longer the top countries … We’re in a whole new era where instead of democracy voting for countries to make policy changes, consumer behaviour can affect corporations in what they deliver down the supply chain.”

Corporations are some of the most powerful, and most polluting, entities in the world. And yet we as individuals have the ability to push them towards a more sustainable way of being. This is demonstrated in the efforts of the red meat industry, historically a huge source of emissions, to become carbon-neutral.

Vegetarianism and veganism are frequently suggested as among the most powerful actions an individual can take against climate change. Even reducing the amount of red meat in one’s diet can make a significant difference. “The enteric [coming from the stomach] methane that is … generated from grazing animals, particularly domestic livestock, is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.” There are other environmental and social issues related to the production of red meat as well, such as the amount of water consumed, or the energy conversion from feed to meat—we could feed a lot more people on the plant matter consumed by the cattle than on the beef produced as a result—but the methane emissions are arguably the most pressing.

This is one of the reasons many people choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, and the red meat industry is taking notice. The Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation recently announced that they could be carbon-neutral by 2030, by implementing a variety of practices and technologies ranging from carbon offsets to vaccines which reduce livestock’s production of methane. It’s a short timeframe for such a change, but they seem committed to the goal, with the Managing Director of Meat & Livestock Australia, Richard Norton, saying, “There are clear market signals … that emissions from livestock production are an issue for consumers who are also increasingly interested in the provenance of their food.”

While pushing corporations to change their behaviour is a necessity at this point in time, many would also say it is not enough. The consumerist values of Western society and the capitalist economic system are clearly not sustainable—as Kenneth Boulding famously put it, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth … on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” It will take larger, systemic change to actually stop climate change—but perhaps the collective power of our individual actions could bring that about.


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