Does all climate activism have to be large-scale?

Photo by Blake Israel

With the waves of environmental trends taking over social media, from choosing reusable tote bags instead of single-use bags to metal straws instead of plastic straws, small, individual changes seem to define the climate activist movement — now more than ever. However, as climate change becomes more pressing than ever, we, at the Technique, would like to explore the question of whether this is the right direction for the climate movement. 

First, we would like to establish that we do not want to disregard the merit that small actions hold. Every choice you make to be more environmentally friendly is a manifestation of your own individual sovereignty and a direct result of your investment in working against climate change. However, sometimes this investment can come with its own consequences, since small lifestyle changes may feel as if you are doing more than actually you are, which may limit the extent you explore other avenues of activism. With the severity of the climate crisis as it is today, these small, individual changes are simply not enough anymore — rather, we need collective action on a larger scale.

It would be remiss to not note that collective action is the result of large-scale individual action, but the climate activism movement is simply not in a place where it is organized enough to reach that level of unity. Moreover, the people who are most impacted by the climate crisis — those in developing nations — are also the people who oftentimes do not have access to the individual actions we champion in the war against global warming. Collective action aims to hold the main enactors of climate change — the government and major corporations — liable for the consequences of their own problematic behavior. Currently, the pressure to remedy corporations’ impact on the environment falls to the consumer as they package guilt in each recycling sign on a plastic bag.

While individual action is what will eventually become a movement, the emphasis on individual responsibility frees the government from actually having to hold corporations liable. 

An example of the collective power of the individual when unified to hold corporations responsible can be seen relatively close to home at Starbucks. After the movement to “save the turtles” by switching out single-use plastic straws to metal straws, there was a rise in customers bringing their own straws to coffee shops, including to Starbucks. In addition, plastic straws began to signify pollution — they became tangible proof of the pollution that corporations work so hard to hide under sustainability initiatives. Starbucks eventually transferred to a less-straw reliant model — a large-scale change precipitated by a tide of small, individual changes. However, at the end of the day, the changes can still be argued to lack meaning since Starbucks still primarily runs on single-use plastic cups. 

It is difficult and even disparaging to minimize the choices people are making to live a more environmentally friendly life, however with an issue at the level or urgency of the climate crisis, we need change and we need it now. You can cut out meat and plastic and those are all great ways to help, but the only way to actually create meaningful change for ourselves and the next generation is to do the gritty work. We need to call our representatives, petition, take to the streets to protest and actively work to dismantle the infrastructure that has set our planet up for failure. 

However, the fact that we have not been collectivized at this point speaks very strongly about not only the difficulty to come together, but the massive amounts of indifference people still carry. Collective action is what will actually create the change. Nothing brings a new world faster than a revolution, but revolutions take years to happen. In the meantime, there’s no harm in skipping the plastic straws.