State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Role of Individual Responsibility in the Transition to Environmental Sustainability

We New Yorkers live in a city that is on a gradual transition toward environmental sustainability, but we are a long way from the place we need to end up. A circular economy where there is no waste and where all material outputs become inputs is well beyond our technological and organizational capacity today. But that does not mean we shouldn’t think about how to get from here to there. Much of the work in building environmental sustainability requires the development of systems that enable us to live our lives as we wish while damaging the planet as little as possible. Large-scale institutions are needed to manage sewage treatment and drinking water, to develop renewable energy and build a modern energy grid. Government policy is needed to ensure the conservation of forests, oceans, and biodiversity. Pandemic avoidance requires global, national and local systems of public health. Climate change mitigation and adaptation also require collective action. What then can individuals do?

As individuals, we make choices about our own activities and inevitably, they involve choices about resource consumption. I see little value in criticizing people who fly on airplanes to travel to global climate conferences. (I assume you do remember airplanes and conferences, don’t you?) But I see great value in considering the importance of your attendance at the conference and asking if the trip is an indulgence or if you will have an important opportunity to learn and teach. This year has taught us how to attend events virtually. There is little question that live presence at an event enables a type of communication that can’t be achieved virtually. Many times, you will judge that the financial and environmental cost of the trip is far outweighed by the benefits. Those are the times you should travel. My argument here is that it is the thought process, the analysis of environmental costs and benefits, that is at the heart of an individual’s responsibility for environmental sustainability. Individuals are responsible for thinking about their impact on the environment and, when possible, minimize the damage they do to the planet.

Everyone needs to turn on the lights at night, start the shower in the morning, turn on the air conditioning and possibly drive somewhere on Mother’s Day. I would never argue that you should give up these forms of consumption. Instead, I believe we should all pay attention to the resources we use and the impact it has. We are responsible for that thought process and the related analysis of how we, as individuals, might accomplish the same ends with less environmentally damaging means.

Some say that the fixation on individual responsibility is a distraction from the more important task of compelling government and major institutions to implement systemic change. This perspective was forcefully argued in 2019 in The Guardian by Professor Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. According to Professor Levermann:

“Personal sacrifice alone cannot be the solution to tackling the climate crisis. There’s no other area in which the individual is held so responsible for what’s going wrong. And it’s true: people drive too much, eat too much meat, and fly too often. But reaching zero emissions requires very fundamental changes. Individual sacrifice alone will not bring us to zero. It can be achieved only by real structural change; by a new industrial revolution.  Looking for solutions to the climate crisis in individual responsibilities and actions risks obstructing this. It suggests that all we have to do is pull ourselves together over the next 30 years and save energy, walk, skip holidays abroad, and simply ‘do without.’ But these demands for individual action paralyse people, thereby preventing the large-scale change we so urgently need.”

Perhaps, but I do not see it that way. I consider individual responsibility and the thought process and value shift that stimulates individual action as the foundation of the social learning process required for effective collective action. In other words, individual change and collective system-level change are interconnected. The fact is that on a planet of nearly 8 billion people, it is too late for many of us to get back to the land and live as one with nature. There’s too many of us and not enough nature. There is an absolute limit to our ability as individuals to reduce our impact on the planet. Therefore, system-level change is absolutely needed. But system change requires individuals to understand the need for change along with a well-understood definition of the problem. The cognitive dissonance of identifying a problem but never acting on it is difficult to live with. If you see a poor child on the street begging for food, you can provide that child with food and money while continuing to support public policy that addresses the child poverty issue at the systems level. In fact, the emotional impact of that child’s face may well provide the drive that leads you to fight harder for the policy that would prevent that child from needing to beg. We learn by example, and vivid experiences and cases can lead to transformative systemic change.

While I consider individual and collective responsibility connected, without collective systems and infrastructure supporting environmental sustainability, there are distinct limits to what individual action can achieve. That is why I see no value in shaming individuals for consuming fossil fuels, eating meat, or buying a child a Mylar birthday balloon. I believe an attitude of moral superiority is particularly destructive in any effort to build the political support needed for systemic change.

As my mentor, the late Professor Lester Milbrath, often argued, the only way to save the planet is through social learning that would enable us to “learn our way to a sustainable society.” He made this argument in his pathbreaking work: Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out. In Milbrath’s view, the key was to understand environmental perceptions and values and to build on those values and perceptions to change both individual behavior and the institutions their politics generated. To Milbrath, the human effort to dominate nature had worked too well, and a new approach was needed. As he observed in Envisioning a Sustainable Society:

“Learning how to reason together about values is crucial to saving our species. As a society we have to learn better how to learn, I call it social learning; it is the dynamic for change that could lead us to a new kind of society that will not destroy itself from its own excess.”

My view is that one method to pursue social learning is learning by doing — in other words by encouraging the individual behaviors we might each take to reduce our environmental impact. Those behaviors remind us to think about the planet’s wellbeing along with our own. They reinforce and remind us and as they become habit, they impact our values and our shared understanding of how the world works.

There is, therefore, no tradeoff between individual and collective responsibility for protecting the environment unless we insist on creating one. Additionally, in a world of extreme levels of income inequality, wealthy people who have given up eating meat have the resources to consume alternative sources of nourishment. They do not occupy the moral high ground criticizing an impoverished parent proudly serving meat to their hungry child. In our complex world, we should mistrust simple answers and instead work hard to understand the varied cultures, values and perceptions that can contribute to the transition to an environmentally sustainable global economy. The path to environmental sustainability is long and winding and will require decades of listening and learning from each other.

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Brian Flegg
Brian Flegg
3 years ago

Steve, I appreciate your perspective on individual responsibility. I am developing a similar position and submitted an “OpEd” piece to Times about a month ago but alas it didn’t get published. I would like to share and develop the conversation with you so please reach out.

callie narum
callie narum
1 year ago

What are the responsibilities of individuals, governments and the international community in helping people have access to water?

karen kramer
karen kramer
11 months ago

While this highly educated society continues the GDP rat race and decimating all other patterns that create balance in the world we live in, here’s a little story of obvious stupidity for fun and profit. In 1975 my wife and I after several years of college chose to listen to scientists’ warnings about continued expansionism economically. We simplified our lives and did without things like electricity, fancy new vehicles and useless bling. We did without as a plausible direction for a template of living lightly and securing a viable future for more than just humans. We endured countless slurs ( tree huggers, eco-terrorists, hippies,) and were subjected to verbal and realistic abuse . Now at 72 and 68 we are wondering where the hell were the rest of you? Read the book “Small is Beautiful ” to see the wrongheaded direction your politicians and some clergy and certainly all greedy vulture capitalist have led the general public. I have no patience for obvious stupidity .Yeah, we were WOKE long before most people and feel no compulsion to be apologetic as all of you are to blame if you help continue the narrative of GDP unlimited growth and the population explosion. nats remark

Edalyn Nebulous
Edalyn Nebulous
5 months ago

“perhaps, but i do not see it that way” sorry but that kinda just means your guile is weak and you’re extremely credulous and succeptable to propeganda, dunno what to tell ya bud but this perspective is a total nothingburger. Of Course we must needs rely on some great measure of personal choice here, but if my choices are: Waste, Waste, Out of my Budget
well i dont REALLY have a choice then Do I? which means that for the majority of americans there is no ethical choice list they can follow to fix the problem, only by compelling legislation can those choices be made available to them.