Do my actions matter?
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
This is the final post in my series The Picture: big and small (catch up on the series here). Throughout this series we've gone on a journey, looking at the scale of climate change and how it is affecting the earth and those who live in it.
In this post I want to look at whether individual actions actually matter. I am incredibly aware of the fact that climate change is a huge issue, and I believe that almost everyone I know is aware of it. However, I think a lot of us are apathetic. We don't care that much about it. But I don't think that is because we live with our heads in the sand, or because we don't believe in the scale of the issue. I think it is because we do not believe that we have the power to do anything about it.
We are apathetic because we doubt our own importance.
In this blog I will be looking into this a bit more. Let me start by saying I am someone who firmly believes that our actions do matter. My international development background tells me that, globally, we are all more interconnected than we think, and that our actions do have consequences. But climate change has a scale that is arguably unparalleled. So I wanted to do some research and look at whether I could be wrong. Or whether, somehow, our actions do actually matter. And if they do matter, then what should we do with that information?
(A warning: this post is a little on the longer side. Please stick with it. It's a good one.)
Why don't we act?
Public awareness of climate change has increased over the years. As a topic, it has moved from being something a small group of people knew about and were concerned about, to being something in the public consciousness. So why do we not take action? The World Bank (p.3) did a poll which found that people remain confused about climate change. In fact, "concern about climate change does not necessarily mean understanding of its drivers and dynamics, nor of the responses needed". The World Bank report goes on to talk about the evolution of the human species; our brains have evolved to respond to threats that can be linked to a human face because they seem more dramatic, unexpected, and immediate. However, we are not as good at responding to threats that are slow to emerge or develop over time. "The slow-changing quality of climate change, as well as the delayed, intangible, and statistical nature of its risks, simply do not 'move us'" (Word Bank, p.4).
This is why I think that the impact of climate change on people is the most compelling argument - it puts a face to the threat. Not in that we identify a human perpetrator, but because it gives a face to those who ultimately suffer from climate change most.
So do our actions even matter?
The World Bank (yup them again - their report is pretty awesome) argue that climate change is "anthropogenic", which means that it is the product of billions of daily acts of consumption. Therefore, our solutions need to be anthropogenic as well. "Yet, suggested solutions are normally cast in the realms of finance and technology, often neglecting the primal root of the problem: individual behaviour" (World Bank, abstract). For example, the report highlights that "roughly 40 percent of OECD emissions result from decisions by individuals" in areas of travel, heating and food purchases.
So in normal English - climate change has been created by individual actions, billions of them, over many years. Therefore, it is going to take the actions of individuals, each and every day, to do something about it. However, the solutions often suggested are simply aimed at the 'big players' (see my last blog post for more), and rarely address the primary cause which is individual behaviour.
So it's clear to me that individual behaviour matters. But, in case you're not yet convinced, let me keep going!
Individual action vs collective action
According to some, individual action is not enough (something I understand but don't totally agree with). They argue that what we really need is collective action (say what?). Collective action literally means coming together to act on something. "Bill McKibben, a leading climate campaigner and founder of 350.org, argues that the most important thing people can do is come together to form movements – or join existing groups – that can “push for changes big enough to matter”, from city-wide renewable energy programmes to large-scale divestment from fossil fuels" (The Guardian).
Now I'm all for this. I used to work at Tearfund in the campaigns team, working on bringing people together to campaign on climate change and take actions that targeted politicians and government. There is definitely a time and place for it, and it is important. But, I don't like to lead with this, because I think it switches many people off. Individual actions are easier (and luckily they do matter!). But I found a great article that bring the two together, saying "Collective action is here interlinked with individual choice – choosing to talk, perhaps through awkwardness and embarrassment at first, learning, voting, writing, protesting, divesting and investing, taking a stand and seeking out others to do it with; coming together, to demand societal and cultural change."
If this is the start of your journey, then by all means focus on individual, at home actions, and know that they do matter. The accumulative power of your daily choices is important. I'm a big believer in the idea that convincing others to change starts with changing yourself - live with integrity and people will admire you, and possibly even join you! And if you're a little more seasoned, then maybe you could ramp up your action and start making it more 'collective'. Talk about it, vote, protest, take a stand, write a blog (🙋🏼♀️), whatever floats your boat.
What should we actually do?
So I am convinced (and I hope you are too) that what we do is important. It matters. But what do we do with that information? Here I will look at some practical steps that we can take to address several big climate issues.
In my last post I looked at the issue of food waste in relation to CO2 emissions. I found that when food waste ends up in landfill it produces methane, which is 23 times more deadly than CO2. Food waste is possibly the biggest 'home' issue. But it is also possibly the easiest to combat.
Use your food bin: if your council offers this service, you should use it. It's an easy way to stop your food waste from going to landfill and producing methane (although I have to admit it's pretty gross - I always find a way to vanish when the time to empty ours comes around...). So what happens to the food that is collected? It is 'recycled' into "good quality soil improver or fertiliser and even generate[s] electricity that can be fed back into the national grid" (Recycle Now).
Plan your meals: if you plan your meals before you go shopping, you are much less likely to buy food that you don't need or won't use. This will also probably save you money (bonus point!). If you can, also plan how much to make at each meal so that you don't get left with loads of extra food that you may not eat. Recycle Now report that while some of the food that we throw out is "made up of things like peelings, cores and bones, but the majority is, or once was, perfectly good food."
Eat your leftovers: in case you do cook to much! How often do you forget about your leftovers (can I get a hands up for all the time 🙋🏼♀️)? When you plan your meals, try to plan what you will do with leftovers. Take them to work for lunch, repurpose leftover chicken from a roast in a risotto, plan an evening where you don't need to cook (score!). Leftovers often get thrown out because we forget about them. But it's an easy one to solve!
Freeze your bread: as I found in my last post, the UK throws away 24 million slices of bread every day! Bread is something that goes off pretty quickly, but it is a staple in many UK homes. You can stop this wasteful cycle by storing your bread in the freezer and later popping it straight into the toaster. If you like to eat fresh bread then you could keep half your loaf out and freeze the other half. Then once your fresh half is finished, simply defrost the other half. Easy peasy.
Foods with a big CO2 footprint
Food production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Not all foods are equal, the kind of foods you eat matter and each one has a different footprint. "Avoiding meat and dairy products is one of the biggest ways to reduce your environmental impact, according to recent scientific studies" (BBC). But what about the other foods we eat, and is there a difference between cheese and milk, or between beef and turkey?
The BBC has used scientific findings to create a calculator that gives you the average global CO2 footprint for many foods. This means you can calculate the footprint of some of the foods you eat often and compare them. Knowledge is empowering, and knowing whether or not something you eat often is bad for the earth is incredibly helpful.
It also allows you to compare different food types, for example proteins (see image to the left). This shows that beef is, by far, the worst of all the proteins for greenhouse gas emissions. By far...
In fact, it highlights how much more of an impact animal proteins have on the earth compared to natural proteins like beans and nuts.
Cut down on your beef consumption: can you commit to reducing the amount of beef you eat? Replace it for chicken, or (if you're feeling brave) beans!
Cut down on your dairy: alternative milks are trendy at the moment, so jump on the vibe and switch up your milk choices. I love using almond milk in my porridge, it's much lighter and gives the porridge a great flavour. Oat milk works really well in coffee, as does soya. We are so lucky to be in a position where we have options, so use them!
Eat more veg: I am a huge advocate for vegetables. I think they're awesome (call me crazy!). Vegetables have lower greenhouse gas emissions than meat products do, making them a key component of your diet if you're looking to reduce your own impact. Now I'm not telling you to become a vegetarian, or even a vegan (however if you'd like to then go for it 👏🏻). But everyone is capable of increasing the veg on their plate, and therefore reducing the amount of meat they consume in one meal. For example, halve the amount of beef you use in a bolognese and add mushrooms and lentils (go half and half with a recipe like this one). You won't even notice that they're there.
Listen to the Deliciously Ella podcast: Ella and her husband Matt run a healthy eating business, all with the aim of making veggies cool (easy to see why I love them!). They've got a podcast series, which is amazing. And in one episode they interview Joseph Poore from Oxford University, whose recent study informed the BBC calculator above. He speaks about his research, and the benefits of a vegan diet for the earth. But before you decide not to listen to it - this podcast is absolutely fascinating, and is relevant for everyone whether or not you are interested in a vegan diet.
Also in my last post, I found that energy was one of the biggest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. But what can we do about it?
Use public transport: we all know that transport creates greenhouse gas emissions, and it isn't hard to see that cars are an inefficient and excessive emitter. This is because public transport splits emissions between all the thousands of passengers, whereas the emissions from cars belong to you alone (a very scientific explanation 😬).
Buy energy efficient appliances and use LED bulbs: this one is pretty self-explanatory. If energy is one of the biggest causes of CO2 emissions, then it makes sense to buy energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs. They often save you money too!
Switch to a green energy supplier: now this one is much more hardcore I have to admit. But if you are serious about making a difference, then this one is a big win. Powering your house on green energy is obviously going to be good for the earth, but it also supports companies that are trying to do something good. You are using your purchasing power for good. Check out this website for some advice and comparisons on green energy suppliers.
If you remember my land and oceans blog, you'll know that plastic is a big problem. Especially for the health of our oceans. So what to do?
Reduce: duh... This is something I have written about before, because it is one of the things I am putting a lot of my energy into changing. Reducing plastic is hard, but it is also something that is largely in your power. I won't go into it much here, but please read this post to find out exactly how to reduce your plastic in different areas of your life.
So I hope that this post has convinced you that the things you do in your day to day life really do matter. You are important. You have the power to create change.
But also I just want to highlight that idea of collective action once more. The purpose of this blog is to bring together people who want to learn, who want to make a change, who want to go on a journey together. So I would like to thank you for joining me on this path. Never doubt that our collective action doesn't mean something. It does.
Power to the people and all that.