Where do we begin, as people who want to have a positive impact on the climate crisis? The question of climate change and ecological breakdown can seem overwhelming at the best of times, it is no wonder that we are often paralysed by it.
A few years ago, I felt as though I had to do something. I stopped buying fast fashion, I became vegetarian, tried (and failed) to stop buying plastic in my food shop. I was overwhelmed, unsure of where to start, how to put the concern I was feeling about my impact on the planet into practice. Starting somewhere, anywhere, felt like the best course of action, and it was.
Years later, reports were published with the conclusion that just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of our global CO2 emissions, and in an instant, all the times I settled for the only veggie option on the menu and all the guilt I felt over buying plastic came hurtling back to me. What did it matter if I used that plastic straw when it could barely hold a candle to the emissions of those companies? I was confronted with the question of how much I could actually do, was I actually having any impact?
However, the last time I ate at a restaurant, I had several different vegetarian options, and even more than one vegan option. Individual action does work, it can change minds and alter policies, but only when it is more than one individual doing the work. Societies such as ours can only continue to function so long as they are catering to the needs of the people they serve. System change can occur, but only if we demand it, either by our day-to-day purchases, or by our direct collective action and activism.
I have struggled for quite some time with finding that delicate balance between my own individual actions and choices and the need for systemic change. I know I am not alone in this feeling either, and the thing is, activist movements are comprised entirely of individual people. It is difficult to detach individual action from a collective goal and vision for the future, whether those individual actions embrace purchasing power, or a more direct form of civil disobedience, they can ultimately contribute to that collective goal. In the time since becoming vegetarian, I have become more involved in climate activist spaces, and more than anything, it has shown me just how entangled these things truly are. My own journey towards activism would not have begun without my choice to stop buying fast fashion, and that beginning point has facilitated my participation in a myriad of different ways to change the way we currently live.
System change only happens because we demand it – we need only look so far as the vast global history of successful social justice movements. At its core, demanding such a thing as systemic change is an involved process of looking at the world and acknowledging that something is fundamentally wrong, and then feeling empowered enough to do something to change that. Such a sense of empowerment exists on a scale, and to say that the individual choices that we make are unimportant in the balancing of that scale would be a gross falsehood. The truth of it is that in this moment, we need any and all change we can get.
The most important thing in all of this is that individual actions, whether choosing not to fly or eating only vegan and organic, are not detached from their larger role in advocating for systemic change, that we are not passive in the choices we do make – this balance is a fine one, but intention matters. If our activism and change-making processes are to have any lasting effect, they must involve a certain amount of unpicking the systems and root causes that have failed us, lest our individual actions alone become tantamount to corporations painting their logos green – nothing more than a pretty facelift. Our criticism of the underlying ideologies and values behind the systems that we hope to change, values of overconsumption and extraction, as well as the exploitation of both human and more-than-human, is an essential individual and collective learning process.
My decision to stop buying fast fashion was an intentional one, with the express purpose of decreasing my own carbon emissions and helping combat garment worker exploitation globally, undermining systems of exploitation and extractivism. However, this was only made possible by the existence of an alternative – vintage and second-hand clothing markets have boomed in recent years, precisely because they present one such alternative. The same is true of menus – being presented with a veggie alternative is halfway towards choosing that option.
The imagination of an alternative, a better way of doing things, is essential to maintaining the balance between individual action and the need for systemic change. Such a balance is in constant negotiation, and as individuals, we must teeter along the line between such things. The truth of the matter is that we need both individual action and systemic change, but more crucially, that one cannot exist without the other, that each must support the other. Whether through a criticism or boycott of exploitative industries, or through the imagination and participation in alternatives, the key is to start somewhere, anywhere. Together, it will be enough.