The other day I was in line at the supermarket. In front of me, a mother was hauling an enormous number of plastic-wrapped items onto the conveyor belt. Fruit, vegetables, water bottles, a variety of meat products… And in a kneejerk reflex, I thought wow she really doesn’t care about the planet, does she?
She paid and left, and I rocked up to the till with my vegan and environmentally-conscious shopping selection, feeling a bit smug and morally superior for buying beans and Alpro rather than meat and dairy milk.
I knew what products had a lower carbon footprint. I knew it because I had spent years reading articles about it, listening to expert panels, surrounding myself with equally environmentally-aware friends, spending hours sharing and following climate action accounts on social media, oh yeah and working in sustainable development…
In short, I knew because I had the time, energy and inclination to find out. Because I grew up in a comfortable middle-class home and I have worked and lived in cities where I had (some) money to try new ethical brands, spend an extra 2 euros on a bamboo toothbrush, and the time to read through endless debates on zero waste Facebook groups.
I went vegan, buy exclusively second-hand clothes, and avoid anything non-recyclable. For ages I felt good because I thought I was proving that individuals can do a lot and that we can ‘be the change we want to see in the world.’ People who didn’t put in that same effort, a small petty part of me assumed, just didn’t care.
But why should I expect every single person to be putting in that same time and effort into learning about the carbon footprint of the milk in their tea, and the pollution of the car they use to drive their kids to school, and the time it will take for their coffee pod to biodegrade? Why do we put so much focus on the environmental actions of the individual?
The difference between individual and systemic action is not something I really believe in. Systems are, after all, created by a collection of individuals. But different individuals have vastly different capacities to make effective and meaningful change.
It is not reasonable to expect that every stressed-out mother of three and every person in a low-income background working three jobs should be spending their scant spare time educating themselves about fossil fuels and joining protests. It is not reasonable to expect that every single voting citizen can and will take the time to read about the damaging impacts of such-and-such environmental bill and evaluate how credible they find political party promises.
It is not fair to treat people as naive for assuming newspapers and politicians are truthful — in other words, for assuming that the government does what it’s meant to do.
Of course it’s good to encourage everyone to eat less meat, drive less and recycle. Of course there are people from all kinds of different backgrounds who care about environmentalism. And these things do make a difference.
The burden of creating a fair and sustainable society should not fall on ordinary citizens. Citizen action is amazing and effective and achieves a hell of a lot. But while millions of us work over 38 hours a week just to afford to live, and have to fit the rest of our lives — housework, shopping, looking after family, making appointments, social life, exercise, hobbies — around those working hours, the amount of time and mental energy we have collectively to question the government and be activists is severely restricted. (Almost sounds like a systemic problem, huh?)
We need to spend less time judging the people around us for how much they perceive to care or not care about the environment, and more time working to make information about environmentalism accessible to everyone. Politics is made deliberately convoluted and hard to understand and this is done to turn people away and say I can never follow all of this.
In an ideal world, politicians would be working hard to change this and reaching out to all areas of society to make sure everyone gets a say. But unfortunately, most aren’t. No prizes for guessing why.
So those of us with the time and capacity to do so should work to make sure those around us who aren’t already in that eco bubble (you know what I mean) are informed about what they can do, and what is happening on a political level.
I would argue that we should be doing this more than agreeing with our equally environmentally-aware social circle about the horrors of oil spills and comparing our favourite tofu. Reach out to the people who aren’t convinced or even aware we need to demand change.
Most importantly, we should demand transparency from our local leaders so explaining policies doesn’t fall exclusively on engaged citizens, and making the changes we can do in our everyday lives until those changes are the norm for everyone, not a challenge.
I write about climate action and sustainability. If you want to hear more like this, you can follow me here or find me on Instagram @coffee_and_casstaways, Twitter @casstaways. For work or other enquiries, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.