This list may not be the one you’re expecting. Do an internet search using something like “top 5 ways to reduce your carbon footprint”, and see what you get. Pages of articles with tidy ticklists to help you do your part. And it’s not just online articles. Entire books, such as “No Impact Man”, recount people’s efforts to live carbon-neutral, plastic-free or reusable-only lifestyles.
All of these articles, the authors behind them, the books, and all the folks who make great personal sacrifices to demonstrate what is possible. deserve deep admiration, conspicuous praise, and much gratitude. But (and I do hate that there is always a “but”) there can be a major pitfall in these stories if they are taken on their own without another perspective.
If the only solution narrative to climate change we hear depends upon personal sacrifice, one could be forgiven for believing that the entire burden lies upon their shoulders. Witnessing further decline in environmental health is therefore due to their failure to do their part. Perhaps even worse, is for those that make the personal sacrifices and still witness the environmental destruction. In this case if they are doing all you can do, then it must be the fault of those around you. Everyone in line at the grocery store, every commuter stuck in traffic, every person walking out of a big box store becomes the problem.
Whether or not you believe the fault to be your own or of those in your community, this mindset can lead to a pretty dark place. Commonly called eco-anxiety, the symptoms have become so acute that it has officially given rise to a new field of psychology appropriately dubbed eco-psychology. Perhaps one of the leading causes of eco-anxiety the belief that personal responsibility, above all else, is the key to climate change. But this just isn’t the case.
Consider a person living in a place that allows the use of styrofoam containers for take-away food. If one were to accept the narrative of personal responsibility, they would probably choose to either bring their own container or stop purchasing take-away food all together. If they and every other person made the same resolution it would be reasonable to expect to see a dramatic decline in styrofoam sales, waste and litter. If there is no decline, then either they are not doing enough or everyone in the community has failed to do their part. In either case, a feeling of helplessness and defeat, some of the leading signs of eco-anxiety, which may ultimately to the individual giving up all together.
For my list of “best ways to reduce your carbon footprint”, I’m going to make one simple suggestion that should avoid the pitfall of eco-anxiety.
- Make your voice heard– write, call or even visit your elected officials.The hard work and sacrifice of a million people working individually can be instantly dwarfed with the swipe of a pen when sensible environmental reforms and regulations are brought to law in a populous region or state like California.
If you are aware of local envoinrmental issues, start there before jumping to national legislation. Advocating for local issues helps elected officials feel like they have their finger on the pulse and will open them up to larger ideas in the future. When you’re ready to talk to your national legislators:
- Support a carbon tax as well as a carbon cap and trade market. The more players in the market, the more effective it is. And taxes, though and old method to shape behavior, has proved time and again to be effective. Look no further than the clear correlation between fuel prices and fuel economy performance on vehicles.
- Advocate for enforcement of existing environmental laws. When enforcement agencies, such as the the U.S. EPA, are diminished so is the efficacy of any standing environmental law.
- Go to climate demonstrations- good old fashion marching in the streets. There is some evidence to suggest that protest can actually entrenched opposition views, but it is only counterproductive when that view is in the minority. Poll after poll has shown an ever growing majority of people around the world are concerned and would like to see action on climate change.
And don’t just think of the senior politicians (e.g. Senators, MPs, etc.). Don’t forget to reach out to your local municipal officials as well. Often times change can be made much quicker on smaller scales and if enough municipalities join in, it can create an upward pressure on the bigger players.
So there you have it, a one step list to avoid eco-anxiety. It’s not to say that individuals shouldn’t strive to reduce their individual impact. It’s stands that collective individual action can be extremely powerful and those that make the personal sacrifice should be lauded. But this narrative alone isn’t enough and can even prove to be counter productive. Remember, the responsibility of changing course on an issue as massive as climate change cannot be your sole responsibility. You do have the power to make a change, but you’re not alone. Just be sure to harness the power of your democracy.