Want to Save the World? Stop Recycling

By Abigail Keaney

Keaney cover image

Do Not Recycle (CC

Right now, the West coast of America is on fire. The air is hazy and thick with ash. Flames have engulfed the western seaboard for the last month, leaving millions of acres of land decimated. The UK is suffering a record-breaking heatwave (Askew and Tandon). A third of Bangladesh is underwater (Noor). Mexico City is running out of water (Mehta and Menon). 20,000 people die from air pollution every day worldwide (Guterres). We are in the worst climate crisis that human history has ever faced. And, as individuals, we shouldn’t do anything about it.

Climate change has been making headlines for the last thirty years (Revkin). The use of coal, oil and gas—the so-called “fossil fuels”—has increased steadily since the advent of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, causing greenhouse gas emissions to shoot up. Gases released in the combustion of these fuels produce an insulating effect in the Earth’s atmosphere, trapping heat and preventing it from radiating back into space. While this effect is necessary for Earth to maintain a habitable atmosphere, the anthropogenically-induced increase in greenhouse gases has resulted in an unprecedented rise in global temperature. Rising temperatures are responsible for a host of negative effects, ranging from higher sea levels to stronger hurricanes. The increasing number and severity of extreme weather events is particularly pressing for low-income countries, where recovery efforts are often hindered by lack of resources. Global warming, a symptom of the changing climate, is no longer a problem for future generations—we are facing it right now.

Since this concept of climate change became part of public consciousness over three decades ago, we have been encouraged to do something about it. Signs in classrooms imploring students to “save the planet” by turning off the light have become as commonplace as chalkboards and dictionaries. The twinge of guilt felt when throwing a recyclable item into the general trash is now an ingrained part of the human condition. Discussions on carbon footprint, meat consumption, and water usage feel like reading a pre-written script of a play that’s been performed a thousand times. We’ve been receiving this climate wake up call for years, but based on the continued rise in emissions, it doesn’t seem like we’ve been listening. While many argue this is the result of indifference or defiant opposition, the reality is, we have it all wrong. There is no point to taking shorter showers or walking to work. The climate emergency is past that point, and perhaps already was by the time we realized what was happening. Small, individual action on climate change is merely a self-serving attempt at feeling virtuous—not only does it do very little, but more importantly it distracts us from the real potential at hand, which is large scale corporate and intergovernmental action.

The conventional view today remains that taking climate action is important, no matter how small that action might be. While it can feel disheartening to watch carbon emissions rise and climate change take hold, many people argue that this is exactly when it’s most important to do something. Furthermore, the consensus is that while individual action from one single person may not do that much, if we all take action then we will actually make a much larger difference. Social networks, they argue, are ripe for climate action to spread, and by ignoring the value of individual action, huge potential gains are lost. Michael Pollan, a journalist and climate activist, envisions a future where many individual actions lead to societal-level behavioral change, where “driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience.” If enough people take small actions, Pollan suggests, then society and its values will begin to shift, at which point the climate fight will truly be on its way to success.

However, these views are based on the very premise that individual action does not, by itself, do that much. The idea that it is valuable purely because of its potential to create a domino effect proves that we need to collectivize to make change. Since the beginning of democracy in Ancient Greece, legislation and law have been the most effective way to take collective action. For example, when Cape Town was close to running out of water in 2018, despite repeated public health campaigns and passionate urges by leaders, the city was only able to reduce its water usage sufficiently when a law on water usage was ratified (Edmond). Therefore, if the argument is that individual action needs to spread to be effective, then this appears congruent with the fact that legislation is the best way to make change. Furthermore, while Pollan’s hope for a seismic shift in social values is laudable, his optimism becomes less appealing upon realizing that he made this argument in 2008. The age of his argument hinders the point simply because there has yet to be this social shift he speaks of. To be sure, supermarkets are full of vegan products and society has reached a point where the practice of corporate “greenwashing” (that is, falsely claiming to be environmentally friendly) is classed as a serious moral ill, but the fundamental fabric of society has not changed dramatically since 2008. Pollan’s hope for a future society grounded in climate action has not come to fruition, and based on the leader of the free world’s 2016 classification of climate change as a “hoax,” it does not appear that it will be coming any time soon (Worland). Relying on individual action as the catalyst for a large scale, societal level change not only undermines the point that individual action actually makes a difference, but also seems woefully misguided from the author who was so urgent about the speed of climate change just sentences before. Waiting patiently for society to change is not enough.

Individual climate activists like Michael Pollan go further by suggesting that arguing for large-scale action as opposed to individual efforts perpetuates a divide between what we say and what we do. By focusing on legislative and corporate change, we are able, they suggest, to discount our individual action as unimportant, thereby creating a world in which our small, everyday actions are disconnected from our larger desires but also our larger senses of self. Wendell Berry, cited in Pollan, goes so far as to suggest that it is inherently dishonest to act on a large scale but to do nothing as an individual. The fundamental argument is that there is a disconnect between how we act on a global scale and how we act in small ways day-to-day.

However, this argument is based on the premise that a disconnect between our large-scale action and our individual action actually exists. Both Berry and Pollan assume there is a class of people donating huge sums of money to climate charities while simultaneously driving gas-guzzling minivans and eating three burgers a day. The reality is that people don’t behave in this way, and if they do, they’re in a highly hypocritical minority. Pollan’s argument underestimates the integrity of the very people he’s trying to convince. If we take action on a global scale, such as lobbying lawmakers, for example, then the odds are we probably live our individual lives in a fairly environmentally friendly way too. While I personally argue that it is okay to discount our individual action as largely unimportant because in perspective, it is unimportant, the reality is that most people are still taking small-scale action. Therefore, Pollan is wrong in his prediction that a focus on global action will create internal division and wipe out individual action altogether. His argument presents the solution to climate change as simply realigning our priorities to focus on individual action when in reality, global warming requires a global solution.

Individual climate action is, by now, second nature for most of us. We use paper bags instead of plastic, we recycle our trash and we turn off the lights when we leave a room. Unfortunately, actions like these actually do very little. For example, after China stopped accepting foreign recyclables in January 2018, much of the recycled material collected from households in the US has been ending up in landfills, the ocean, or even in incinerators, which releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (Albeck-Ripka). In Chicago, less than 9% of waste ends up actually being recycled, and there are similar figures for other US cities too (Bendix). Therefore, “recycling” waste is doing nothing and, in fact, may end up harming the Earth more than helping it. Furthermore, while the recycling of metal may be beneficial, the carbon benefits of recycling plastic are incredibly small. In fact, Andrew McAfee, an MIT researcher, suggests that the shipment of recycling overseas to be processed is so harmful to the environment that it negates any of the benefits gained from the actual recycling process (qtd. in Brueck). There is an excess of similar arguments to be made for almost every kind of individual action (paper bags are more harmful than plastic, for example) so these kinds of measures, then, are simply a way to make us feel better about ourselves and nothing more. They are a waste of time and energy that could be better spent fighting the climate battle elsewhere.

Likewise, individual action is not only largely pointless, but can be actively harmful to the climate activism cause. When the message is that we can fix climate change by simply changing a lightbulb, we are lured into a false sense of security about the severity of climate change, and distracted from the real work that is required to make tangible progress. This means that when we do change the lightbulbs, we believe that we are taking appropriate climate action and therefore do not feel the need to do anything more. However, this distraction can be deadly. In fact, it has been demonstrated that a focus on small actions such as decreasing energy consumption, termed “green energy nudges,” actually reduces support for larger-scale action such as climate taxation (Hagmann, Ho, and Loewenstein, qtd. in Mann and Brockopp). Hagmann, Ho, and Loewenstein show that people who were persuaded to decrease their water usage actually ended up using more electricity at the same time, because their initial climate action placates their panic and prevents further action from occurring—there does not seem to be any need for climate legislation when we can simply start biking to work, for example. Therefore, we are merely distracted by individual climate action, and it is not the way forward, because it detracts from the more important work of global change.

Emphasizing this, proponents of large-scale action over individual action such as Mann and Brockopp suggest that “a focus on (individual) action can divide us, with those living virtuously distancing themselves from those living ‘in sin.’” By comparison, they suggest, global action being inherently international means it will produce unity as we strive for a common goal, whereas individual action will eventually cultivate a moral hierarchy on which people are judged by their climate-related behavior. This argument for global unity is in direct contrast to Pollan’s argument that prioritizing large-scale action creates a division within the individual themselves. The former case, in which we focus on large scale change, appears preferable, because if Pollan is to be believed and individual action will produce a society in which those who do not conform to environmentalism are shamed, we will need global unity more than ever. Global action will require us to engage across borders—and already has done, with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the source of climate agreements like the Paris Accord and the Kyoto Protocol—which, in an age of ever-increasing political polarization, would be a welcome side effect of climate action.

Defendants of small-scale climate measures reject the notion that individual action is a poor idea and instead suggest that making small-scale changes actually strengthens the overall climate movement. They warn against creating a false dichotomy between individual and collective action, and to some extent this is fair. Advocating for global action on climate shouldn’t require one to suddenly give up on their paper bags and their veganism, even if these actions are not as promising as they may initially appear. For most people, there is room for both approaches in life, and they do build upon each other. However, where one form of action is prioritized, it should be global action. Not only has individual action been shown to be actively pointless in some cases, but practicing repeated small-scale measures can undermine a person’s willingness to fight for larger change. When it is this larger change that will actually make a difference, its sacrifice may be fatal.

To make real change, legislative efforts such as carbon taxes and renewable energy subsidies are the way forward. The world continues to be incentivized by financial gain, so rather than waiting for society itself to change (as Pollan suggests), we should change our approach to fit the society as it currently is. While supporters of individual action suggest that it can be a valuable tool to incite political change by indicating to lawmakers what the people really want, this type of idealistic thinking suggests that whenever the people speak, lawmakers listen. In reality, the lobbying culture of the US means that large corporations have far more sway in developing—or more accurately, hindering—climate legislation than the people do. The key to progress on climate might be, then, to start lobbying, too. If lobbying works, and it does (Drutman), then perhaps this is the way forward. Corporations don’t try to improve profits by asking their employees to all purchase one thing from the company every day; they lobby for their interests and take national, or in some cases global, action. As long as capitalism reigns, thinking like a business may be the way forward for climate action.

Rejecting individual climate change action may remain a controversial stance, but wherever there is a status quo, there will be a rejection of it too. While taking small steps to combat climate change makes us feel good about ourselves and the future of our planet, the reality is that it is not the way forward if real change is to occur. Through a process of distraction and pure futility, individual climate action is more harmful than helpful in the climate fight. Taking large-scale, potentially legislative measures is key to achieving success and should therefore be our focus. Forget the recycling, veganism, and biking; they’re a waste of time in a fight where time matters more than ever.