All That Performative Environmentalism Adds Up

Don’t depersonalize climate change.

The Atlantic

My newly adopted home state is on fire again: Scorching heat and lightning strikes have sparked dozens of fires across California, burning an area the size of Rhode Island. Iowa is reeling from a deadly derecho. The Mountain West is suffering through a severe drought. Towns and cities all over are experiencing one of the hottest summers on record, if not the hottest. And a hurricane just tore through the Gulf Coast.

With climate change making extreme weather events more intense and more common, and Congress continuing to ignore this existential threat, I have tried to do my part. After moving to California, I went on a no-buy streak. I began refusing short plane trips, using public transit or walking whenever possible, and turning the air-conditioning down. I even started carrying around a water bottle or a mason jar.

Could it be that my decision to go green is pointless, or even harmful? “Performative environmentalism” is more about personal virtue than saving the planet, says the writer s.e. smith in a searing essay, and puts the focus on the micro and futile rather than the macro and important. Polluters have convinced us that it is consumers’ fault, argues the activist George Monbiot, who also argues that we cannot buy our way out of a crisis caused by untrammeled consumption. Neoliberalism has wrested the responsibility for environmental action from the C-suite and the statehouse to the individual home, says the journalist Martin Lukacs. No less an authority than Michael Mann, the renowned climatologist, has made a version of this same argument, as have many, many other thinkers.

Companies are where the fault lies, the argument goes: Just 20 of them are responsible for 35 percent of global emissions since 1965, according to a report by Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute. “The corporations blame the consumers,” Heede told me in an interview. “They say, ‘We’re just the producers. We’re satisfying public demand.’” But those companies confuse the public, sow distrust of climate science, and impede policy changes in order to keep profiting while the world burns.

Governments are where true salvation lies, the argument continues: There is no real hope for keeping global warming below those all-important targets without raising the price of carbon, lowering the price of green energy, and pushing subsidies and other policies to get the world to adapt and decarbonize as fast as possible. Political action in the United States is what matters, for the country and the world.

The critics are right that focusing on individuals is a grave error if it obscures corporate culpability and systemic solutions. But I’m not about to get rid of my canvas bags and mason jars, buy a second car, or start taking short flights again. Talking with economists, climate scientists, and psychologists convinced me that depersonalizing climate change, such that the only answers are systemic, is a mistake of its own. It misses how social change is built on a foundation of individual practice.

On one point, the experts agree: In terms of the pencil-to-paper carbon math, no matter how much of an emitter you are—flying around the world on a private jet, keeping several houses cooled to 62 degrees in the summer and warmed to 75 in the winter, eating Argentinian filet and French champagne at every meal—your contribution to climate change is minuscule and any consumption changes you might make even more so. Recycling, cutting back on driving, and changing out old light bulbs for energy-efficient ones might save half a ton of carbon a year. A household going car-free, flight-free, and vegan—changes impractical, if not outright impossible, for many families to make—might reduce emissions by four tons a year. The world needs to slash emissions by tens of billions of tons annually, which categorically requires government investment and government regulations.

But the case for doing something, anything, everything for the future of the planet at a household level is not about long division. “It is a false debate within the climate-activist community,” Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA, told me, speaking on his own behalf. “The canard is this either/or, collective or individual, and [that] individual [change] is a distraction. If the only effect is in keeping an individual’s carbon-dioxide molecules out of the atmosphere, that’s correct. But that’s less than 1 percent of the reason to take action.”

Each individual may not matter. But individuals collectively matter, and consumer culture matters. Shifting mores and norms would help curb emissions, and would make drastic political action more likely.

The behavioral-science literature makes clear that human beings are more like middle schoolers at a semiformal than Aristotelian judges in chambers. We do not act according to pure reason. We are highly sensitive to what the people around us are doing or thinking or talking about, and behave accordingly, whether it comes to having a kid, having more kids, getting a tattoo, taking paternity leave, binge drinking in college, paying a fair share of taxes, finding a person hot, committing a violent assault, donating to charity, being happy, being depressed, developing an eating disorder, laughing, or smoking cigarettes. Among humans, just about everything goes viral.

Social scientists do not just think that the same is true when it comes to helping the environment and stemming climate change. They know that it is true. Take the example of the sport utility vehicle. Annual sales of these boxy gas guzzlers have soared in recent decades; just 8 percent of American consumers chose SUVs as of 1992, and more than 40 percent choose them today. As the Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank notes in his book Under the Influence, that shift was not due to some intrinsic need on the part of American consumers. The population grew in dense urban areas and shrank in sparse rural ones over that time, and labor growth happened in the white-collar and service sectors. Families got smaller at the same time too.

SUVs got popular because they were perceived as cool and rich people started buying them, and nobody cared a whit about the carbon impact. Frank traces the trend to the 1992 Tim Robbins film The Player, of all things: “Seeing a wealthy studio executive behind the wheel of a Range Rover instantly certified it as a player’s vehicle of choice. As more and more high-income buyers purchased them, their allure grew,” he writes. “When other automakers began offering similar vehicles at lower prices, SUV sales took off. And with each driver who bought an SUV instead of a car, gasoline consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions increased further.”

If viral buying can hurt the environment, it can help it, too. Putting solar panels on your house is infectious: A study from California showed that a single house installing rooftop solar panels increased the probability of another house in the same zip code doing so by .78 percentage points. The propensity to conserve water and recycle is social too. “People see that their neighbors are putting their [recycling bins] out, and they become more likely to do that,” Robert Gifford, a psychologist who studies environmental behaviors at the University of Victoria, told me. “Seeing what your friends and neighbors are doing can make a big difference in people’s behavior.”

Trying to reduce your household recycling and waste burden, using public transit, offering plant-based meal options at work and social events, refusing to fly to the family reunion: It stands to reason that all of those behaviors are catching as well. Last year, the “flight shame” movement swelled in Europe, bolstered by the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. A UBS study of 6,000 people in the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom found that one in five said they had reduced the number of air trips they took based on climate concerns. Germany attributes a measurable drop in air traffic to the phenomenon.

Researchers believe that these kinds of household-led trends can help avert climate catastrophe, even if government and corporate actions are far more important. Community practices really do count. “If 5 percent of Americans bought carbon offsets or changed other [carbon-intensive] behaviors, that would add up to a reduction of 600 million tons of carbon dioxide a year,” Brett Jenks, the president of Rare, a global conservation nonprofit, told me. “That would put it on a short list of the top changes in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions in human history,” along with the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, which banned certain chemicals and helped save the ozone layer.

Getting people to act better on the climate might get them to think better on the climate too, bolstering their political interest in fixing the problem. To borrow a phrase commonly used in social-psychology textbooks (and in addiction support groups), people often act their way to better thoughts, rather than thinking their way to better actions. Getting people to ride a bike for errands might make them care about the environment, just as caring for the environment might get them to ride a bike.

Little actions have a way of becoming big actions through something psychologists call the “foot-in-the-door” phenomenon. In one experiment, conducted in the 1960s, researchers asked one set of Californians to put up huge Drive Carefully signs in their yards. Only one in five said yes. They asked a second set to put up a small sign about safe driving in their front windows or in their car. They were then asked to put up the large Drive Carefully yard sign as well. Three in four went along. They were already “drive carefully” people, after all.

Research from development also suggests that doing works better than showing works better than telling. Jerry Sternin is a former Harvard Business School professor and staff member at the nonprofit Save the Children. Back in the 1990s, he was tasked with trying to end childhood malnutrition in extremely poor communities in Vietnam. Sternin and his colleagues identified mothers who were already keeping their kids nourished. They had volunteers learn those practices and share them with a few neighbors, by having them come over to cook with them. Sternin found the positive deviants” in a community and figured out how not just to amplify their practices, but to get those practices to stick in whole villages. In some cases, malnutrition declined 65 to 85 percent.

What communities do, laws reflect—this is another reason to act on climate change, and urgently. “We’re part of a society, where people interact with companies, companies interact with the government, and people interact with the government. And in all of these cases, the interactions go both ways,” Jonathan Gilligan, a physicist and a climate-change researcher at Vanderbilt University, told me. “Each part influences another.” Many climate activists believe that changing social norms around carbon-intensive behaviors makes the likelihood of dramatic climate-change legislation in the future more likely, not less.

Indeed, changing social mores often wend their ways into laws. Animal-rights activists moved against fur wearing in the 1980s, and raised awareness about how cruel the practice is for the broad public. Now that the trade is much diminished and far more niche, cities are finally enacting bans on new fur sales. Or consider drunk-driving legislation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was crucial in reframing alcohol-related car “accidents” as criminal incidents, and pushing hundreds of policy changes that slashed the share of traffic fatalities involving alcohol.

Generally, research indicates that laws and regulations often work better when they reflect what a populace is already doing or how it is already changing, rather than trying to force a populace to change. The economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Matthew Jackson of Stanford tackled the phenomenon in a paper, starting with a great anecdote. France outlawed duelling in the early 17th century, but the practice, “a key pillar of the social norms of French military officers and aristocrats,” remained common, killing 4,000 officers during a three-decade period in which it was putatively prohibited. The ban backfired, the economists argued, as many strict and sudden laws do.

To make a climate legal regime work, it might help to tighten laws gradually. It also might help for individuals to start acting in anticipation of those laws. Rules requiring solar power, regulations encouraging electric cars, taxes on meat—they would be easier to pass and less painful to adhere to if more people were using solar power, driving electric cars, and buying less meat to begin with.

Action makes activists, and the world needs consumers not just to behave more responsibly when it comes to the climate, but to understand the survival-of-the-species urgency of the unfolding catastrophe. “I am absolutely terrified. What’s happening to the Earth system, it is happening so much faster than I thought it would,” said Kalmus of NASA. “The observations, the interpretations, the projections from the climate model—when I translate that into the emotional part of my brain, what I feel is panic and terror. I struggle to breathe sometimes. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I just feel like there’s no place to hide. I can’t do enough to wake people up.”

When you feel that way, you want to act in accordance with that belief, he said, and acting in accordance with that belief underscores how serious the problem is. “My desire to fly?” he said. “It’s negative.”

People who make the case for not worrying about changing your personal habits, and instead insisting that the government do its job, push back against the above arguments in a few ways.

One is by citing what is often called “self-licensing” or “moral licensing”: the thing that makes people order a fancy, sugary coffee drink after hitting the gym, or spend money on new clothes after getting through their paperwork. After doing something “good,” people tend to then do something “bad”: Ethical behavior induces later unethical behavior; moral behavior induces immoral behavior; green behavior induces not-green behavior. Studies have shown that people who save water, for instance, then increase their electricity consumption. Getting people to do better at home, it follows, might have a null overall effect on their carbon emissions.

A more serious concern is that taking little, statistically meaningless actions to help the environment might reduce people’s interest in fixing the problem at a societal and governmental level. People might think: I’m cutting my emissions, and the people around me are cutting their emissions. We’re getting it done! One study found that using “nudges” to encourage people to use green energy diminished their support for a carbon tax. Research also suggests that personal beliefs about the climate are not always indicative of environmental behaviors. A University of Michigan study found that people who were not convinced on climate change “were most likely to report engaging in individual-level, pro-environmental behaviors,” and that people who were most concerned were least likely to do so.

But psychologists and climate experts push back on all of that pushback, and hard. For one, moral licensing does not mean that people cannot and do not meaningfully reduce their carbon impact. “Our team of behavioral economists and social-science researchers—they found that moral licensing is a thing, full stop,” said Jenks, the president of Rare. “But the impacts are very small. And when you look at the size and scope of impacts needed to get published as a result, they have a very low bar for significance statistically.”

Gifford, the psychologist who focuses on personal actions and climate change, added that moral licensing creates a “negative spillover” from a given behavioral change. But “positive spillovers” happen too. On net, the positive often outweighs the negative. “There’s a bunch of research about this, and it’s contradictory mainly because there are different kinds of behaviors and different kinds of people,” he told me. “It is three steps forward and two steps backward. You get more steps forward than backwards.”

As for whether focusing on personal actions undercuts the case for political actions—again, countervailing research points in the other direction. Even that “nudge” study found that simply telling people in advance that a carbon tax is more effective than a renewable-energy program leads people to support both initiatives. That finding gets at a way to improve messaging on the climate crisis: Activists could stress that personal climate responsibility needs to come alongside policies such as carbon taxes, electric-vehicle mandates, and so on.

Finally, personal action might help climate action out of the political trap it already finds itself in. Right now, many Republicans oppose climate legislation in part because Democrats want it; negative partisanship is making compromise impossible. “Private initiatives might build support and inroads with people who have traditionally been really opposed to the government taking action on the climate,” Gilligan, the climate researcher, told me. If government action is one of many policy avenues, and if everyone is already taking action to save the planet, the issue might become more bipartisan.

What should individuals do to fight the atmospheric warming that’s spinning off hurricanes and lighting fires and causing droughts across the country? How can individuals help create a culture that will eliminate the nightmare of climate change?

Consumers are bombarded with inaccurate and contradictory messages about human impact on the natural world. Most Americans, when asked what they should be doing, talk about recycling, Jenks said—the result, in part, of a multi-decade campaign by waste-management companies. Recycling is good to do. But “reduce” and “reuse” are more important behaviors, and recycling is not a crucial household-level behavior one way or another.

The country could use far more potent and urgent norms when it comes to emissions-heavy behaviors, he told me. And the time is ripe for creating them. “From our own research, more than 50 percent of Americans would like to do something personally about climate change,” he told me. “But they don’t know that anybody else expects them to do anything. We call that in social sciences an ‘expectations gap.’ People expect they should be doing something, but they don’t yet know that others expect them to do something.”

The best “somethings” to do include adopting a plant-rich diet, buying carbon offsets (though there is some controversy about that), using renewable energy at home, wasting less food, using mass transit, and flying far less often. Your furnace, your car, your commute, your vacations, your lunch: That’s where change needs to happen. Wealthy Americans, who are far worse emitters than their poorer counterparts, need to shift their behavior most dramatically and receive the most social sanction.

Pressuring the political system is another crucial behavior. At a local level, demanding dense, walkable neighborhoods and abundant, low-cost public transit is a good start. But the Senate and the Supreme Court—heavily politicized, antidemocratic, and counter-majoritarian bodies—are the most potent obstacles to drastic, immediate climate action. Calling your swing-state senator to press for the abolition of the filibuster, getting out the vote in purple states, donating to pro-climate candidates: These might be among the most important things that individuals can do.

Get terrified, and act like it. That’s what our species needs to do to survive, and to help save the trillions of other creatures mortally endangered on this planet. But go ahead and enjoy your coffee in a reusable container while doing it.