For people who would like to continue to live on a planet that's hospitable to human life, the news cycle isn’t great. Climate change feels like a momentous, intractable, irreversible problem, and it feels like there is nothing any one person can do. For all our efforts, we're often left to feel frustrated and helpless.
But the truth is, the companies that cause the most damage to the planet — and are responsible for most of the world's carbon emissions — are often the ones spinning the debate. From coining the term “carbon footprint” to put the onus on individual consumers, to focusing our attention on not using reusable straws instead of loftier goals, fossil fuel companies have worked very hard for a long time to muddy the waters of the climate debate. To combat these issues, it's clear that drastic action, on a large scale, is needed. But does that mean we should suspend our personal efforts?
Well, no. It turns out, working to be more sustainable has a bigger impact than you might think — for the planet, our greater community, and for ourselves.
Lily Dempster, founder of One Small Step, an app that harnesses cognitive science to help individuals reduce their carbon load, explains where we get it wrong. “There’s a false binary between individual and collective action that is actually really counterproductive,” she says.
Dempster — who has previously campaigned for the ETS and worked with GetUp! on campaigns to convince people to switch to carbon-neutral energy providers — has come to the conclusion that for the vast majority of us —who don’t own fossil fuel companies — learning to be more sustainable is a vital component of addressing climate change.
Climate change is a complex network problem, Dempster says; a giant, tangled web of interconnecting causes and effects. And to address the problem, a lot has to change, at all levels of society, at the same time. “I'm not saying it's not zero-sum, it's not one or the other. But we do, absolutely, in countries with high personal carbon footprints, need to make changes to our behaviour.”
In philosophy, there’s a concept called a ‘stag hunt’. It goes like this: you live in a society where everyone hunts rabbits. But in this place you live in, there are also stags — and if everyone combines their efforts to hunt a stag together, you’ll all be better off. But if you go out there to hunt a stag, and everyone else is off hunting rabbits, you come home with nothing.
Individual action on climate change can be thought of as a stag hunt. If we all agree to hunt a stag — to operate within a carbon budget, to create less waste, to cycle instead of drive — we all win. But if no one else is doing it, everyone else gets their rabbits, and the stag hunter gets nothing.
The psychological wellbeing that comes from practising sustainability is significant
Thinking of individual climate action as a stag hunt, and of climate change as a zero-sum game, is a pathway to anger, frustration and helplessness —and it’s also not true.
The case for individual action is threefold.
First, collectively, individuals can have an impact.
“I think sometimes people confuse making a negligible individual difference with making no difference. And that's worth distinguishing,” says Australian National University philosophy professor Colin Klein. “A lot of the problem with climate change is that lots of individuals, very small choices and small actions, add up to a big bad thing.”
Wealthier countries like Australia, with high individual emissions, are the perfect place to make that impact. According to Dempster, if One Small Step had the same number of users as Fitbit, those users reducing their emissions by a third would be equivalent to closing 40 coal-fired power stations. And it doesn’t require a decade of investment in nuclear energy, or billions of dollars. We can start now.
Secondly, making certain choices, however small, can be symbolic
Our choices signal that people care about issues enough so that companies and governments begin to pay attention. Professor Klein points to concrete production as an example of a climate issue that is unglamorous, but needs to be addressed. “It's not itself that exciting, but really needs to be done. And so I think some of the kind of more individual actions can also convince people who have the power to make those things happen, that it's worth doing those things.”
Finally, it’s good for you.
Sustainability is part of the pathway out of the climate crisis, but it also is a pathway to feeling better, and living a better life, especially as we live with the stress of eco-anxiety.
Psychologically, Dempster's own sustainability journey has been an “antidote” to the sense of disempowerment that she experienced with climate action. “I feel like focusing on what we can control is sort of one of the ways to navigate through this,” she says. “We don't have total control over this problem. But we do have control of one component, let's focus on the component that we can control. And that means who you vote for, your daily behaviour, where you put your money — those types of things we have some control over.”
“Self-care and care for the planet go hand in hand, and the psychological wellbeing that comes from practising sustainability is actually pretty significant.”
And on a practical note, a lot of sustainable behaviours — buying fewer new things and engaging more with circular fashion, growing your own produce, cycling and walking — are cheaper than the alternatives.
Individual sustainability efforts aren't a silver bullet for the climate, no matter what fossil fuel companies say. But it’s also not inconsequential, and it’s something we can actually do, right now.
Dempster notes, “When you look at the fact that it's not just you operating on your own, you're operating with a mass of other people making those changes together... just trust that that is possible.
“If you contribute what you can, trust that other people will do the same.”