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Climate change: what can an individual do?

Do your best, but don't beat yourself up

Next week, I will be attending COP26 as an observer for The Open University, the largest university in the UK. Ostensibly, COP26 is about governments and intergovernmental organisations 'solving' the climate crisis for us. We are also asked to take individual action, and sometimes 'carbon shamed' by others for not doing enough. I have some thoughts on this, and also a reminder that we're citizens and not just consumers.

First off: can an individual implement worthwhile actions as a consumer? Absolutely. Recycle, buy less, repair more, waste less, travel less, move to a low carbon lifestyle. But most people, with the best will in the world, will not be able to be the climate saints that friends and society might be exhorting them to be and they start feeling guilty for not being perfect. Don't. Do whatever you can, however small it may appear. If all you do is recycle, that's better than not recycling. Use your bike for a few short trips a week instead of your car? Good. Make an effort not to waste food? Great. Remember you're not in a competition with others: you're just trying to be better than your previous self.

You're not just a consumer, you're a citizen too

In the previous paragraph I qualified individuals as consumers. A lot of the exhortation to make an individual difference is about the stuff we buy and use e.g. you can use consumer power by not buying overly packaged goods. George Monbiot made the point this week that society has successfully trained us to see ourselves as consumers, rather than citizens. Consumers are more compliant and manageable by government, citizens not so much. As an individual citizen you have power.

I've long argued that politicians don't like doing anything that might be seen as unpopular: it's much easier to lose votes than it is to gain them. Ideally therefore politicians want to implement legislation that the public are already 'up for'. That means that politicians are often a few steps behind civil society on some issues. Many of the positive social changes in the past decades have occurred despite government not because of them. As a citizen, you can write to your MP, write to local government, write letters to the papers, go on marches, put posters in your window, talk to friends, family and workmates about current issues.

You can demonstrate in a multitude of ways what your values are. If enough people do all these things as consumers and citizens then what is classed as normal behaviour in society swings more to the environmental side and society's 'floating voters' who haven't thought much about the environment will feel comfortable that if they start engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour, they will not be the odd ones out. I am old enough to remember when people who recycled or talked about climate change were regarded as hippies to be lightly mocked. I remember when Greenpeace was almost viewed as a terrorist organisation and pilloried. No-one's doing that now, they were simply ahead of the curve. As the saying goes "what is considered radical today, will be considered conservative tomorrow". By doing all this you are sowing seeds in other people's minds. We have all the information we need on the climate crisis, what needs to be triggered now is people's will and imaginations. When enough people achieve that, politicians sit up and realise they'd better jump on the bandwagon or be left behind.

TLDR: All those who do anything, however insignificant it might appear, are on the right side of history. Individuals can bring about change: they've always been the only ones who have.

This is just one of the stories from my environmental talks

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