We’ve gone from climate change to climate crisis in a matter of what feels like Trump’s presidency (for me, anyway). The worst part, we often feel powerless to do anything about it.
Inaction, though, is the greatest guarantee that the change that’s become a crisis will inevitably become a climate catastrophe.
So what do we do about it? Specifically, what do YOU and I as individuals do about climate change?
How do we make the shift from powerless back to powerful and reclaim our own individual climate action agency?
This was a question I explored with Paul Hawken, environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author of the book Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation.
Together, we’ll explore Paul’s response; a historical introduction to individual action on climate, how change actually happens, and how you can think through finding your own personal climate action.
The History of Individual Action on Climate Change
To consider what actions we might take today, it’s important to understand why we might think the way we do about our own climate action.
Paul began his answer to the broader question by introducing us to the history of the carbon footprint and how that’s influenced individual action on climate.
There’s a paradox here about what can I do [about climate change].
And starting in 2001, British Petroleum with the help of Ogilvy and Mather created the carbon footprint, the idea of the carbon footprint.
And this is so you could calculate your footprint… making British Petroleum look like, hey, we just drill holes in the ground and make gasoline, you’re the ones driving.
They took this out of the tobacco industry playbook, “you’re smoking we just make cigarettes.” And they advertise them and sell them to children.
It is just so bizarre but actually, people cared about it. And then people said, “Okay, what can I do?”
There is a great deal of so many things you can do to save the Earth, and they’re all good, and they’re all meaningful. But if you could stack them all together, they wouldn’t be anywhere nearly sufficient for the task at hand.
And I think most individuals realize that and can see that they should put the recycling bin out, and they should use cold water in the washing machine, and they should eat less meat perhaps, and be careful about their clothing, how much you buy, buying secondhand clothing, and all that sort of stuff.
That was not so evident 20 years ago, but [it is] certainly now.
There are so many things that you can do as an individual. And they’re very important, not only in the impact they have or don’t have as a case but also in terms of reminding yourself every single day that you live on a planet and can step lightly, so to speak.
Cory’s Note: I agree with Paul here. As it relates to the great, big, bad problem of climate change, our own actions to lessen our footprint might seem meaningless.
But it’s not in fact about the exact amount of carbon we’re avoiding emitting (while that is important), rather, the indirect benefits might be what are most worth paying attention to.
Your intentions produce your actions and your actions determine what you value. Likewise, your actions do in fact influence others.
For example, if you install solar panels on your house your neighbors are more likely to do so, too.
Our actions are important for not only what they say about what we value, but likewise, they become an example for others to follow.
At the same time, I think because people knew as individuals, you know, that it was insufficient for the task at hand, there was then a tendency to say “well, are they going to do something?”
“They” were big corporates, big government.
There was a tendency to look to these very, very large institutions as being the key being the ones who had the ability to make the really big changes that are needed in order to stem the climate crisis.
But then, if you look at those institutions, big corporates, big government, and the Conference of the Parties (COP) they have been 25 years of complete disappointment, frankly. And it’s not to say business hasn’t made progress in certain areas.
But it’s been the businesses that are in the industry of renewable energy turbines. Those companies, those engineers, those inventors, those innovators have been spectacular. But the corporations that are basically destroying the Earth, that are harming life, that are degenerating life, are now paying much greater lip service to net zero, commitments, offsets, and all that sort of stuff.
And so that’s a big change. But up until now, there hasn’t been that.
Cory’s Note: When people saw that their actions were not much more than a drop in the ocean, they got frustrated, and rightfully so.
Further motivation and action are driven by some sort of positive feedback loop. If there’s no indication that what you’re doing is worth it, then why do it?
What’s been the point of all the personal discipline, in some instances sacrifice, when the condition of the world has only gotten worse and worse.
You begin to look outside yourself, as Paul mentioned, to the groups with perceptively greater power than you have (govt., business, etc).
But, time and time again, they don’t act. And they not only don’t act, but their actions are part of what’s leading to our planetary demise.
And how could we possibly get them to change?
How Does Change on Climate Happen?
Paul continued to explain, despite the history of manipulative messaging, how change does in fact happen.
And so what Regeneration is about is like, wow, there’s a big difference between an individual and say, you know, Procter and Gamble. The spacing between us is agency.
It’s us, it’s groups, you know, it’s cities, companies, people, its classes, it’s schools, you know, it’s our neighborhood, it’s our communities.
There are all these ways in which human beings can figure in networks and work together, know each other, and trust each other. And we love to solve problems together.
That’s why we’re Homo Sapiens. That’s why we’re here. That’s why the Neanderthals aren’t, you know, this is because we did that and they didn’t.
We’re still that way. And what we’re trying to point to in Regeneration is that that’s where [change] happens
And so it starts with an individual. It does, you know, I mean, an individual talks to a friend and neighbor family friend or somebody at their company and things can grow.
But those are where the solutions belong. They’re all local at the end of the day, you know, there’s no such thing as global solutions, and who’s local?
Well, human beings.
Cory’s Note: The answer of “reduce your carbon footprint” to the question of “what can you do about climate change” doesn’t do this question its proper justice.
We do need to think about our own climate action, but not how we traditionally have.
The important context: The “carbon footprint,” was a term that was made up by advertisers for British Petroleum to distract from their own impact and put the impetus of addressing the climate crisis back on the individual.
This has been done repeatedly in other industries as well (plastic bottle producers like Coca-Cola and tobacco).
So it’s important that we know this, that this message, to measure and reduce your own carbon footprint is used as a distraction. This is because we as individuals aren’t the biggest offenders!
So, how do we think about what we can do about climate change?
With the understanding that the total carbon burden isn’t on ourselves as it is on massive polluters and those who regulate them, we can sit around and wait for them to take action.
But, if all we do is wait for the big players to act and determine they are the only ones with any capacity, we forfeit our own agency.
By no means directly, is the federal government’s action in our control, even less so, the actions of fossil fuel executives.
While frustrating, we must remind ourselves of that. And with that, think through where all change begins—an individual.
Where to Find Your Climate Action
If you’re still wanting a specific and tactical answer to the “what can you do” question, I found that Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, environmentalist, marine biologist, and podcast host of How to Save a Planet, provides a wonderful framework.
Dr. Johnson advises going through the exercise of asking yourself three questions and finding where there is overlap in each of your answers.
The three questions:
- What brings you joy?
- What are you good at?
- What work needs to be done?
She depicts these three questions as a Venn diagram, with your climate action being in the middle. This is where there is an overlap of all three.
I find this exercise refreshing myself, as the advice seems to be explicitly personalizable. What do you do? Well, something that you’re good at and enjoy, first of all.
This echos advice that I’ve heard repeatedly throughout my hosting over 200 interviews on The Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast.
Both explicitly and implicitly, I hear: make sure you love what you do.
If you’ve chosen to work in the space of social/environmental impact, the work typically isn’t easy. And, making meaningful change takes time. A lifetime even!
So, whatever you do, make sure it’s something that you can see yourself doing for the long haul.
That’ll give you the greatest to sustain, and, to affect the change you’d hope for.
The world needs you too!
My complete conversation with Paul Hawken can be found here. The transcription included above has been edited for concision and clarity.
Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, activist, and best-selling author, who has dedicated his life to environmental sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. His work includes founding successful, ecologically conscious businesses, writing about the impacts of commerce on living systems, and consulting with heads of state and CEOs on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy. Paul is Founder of Project Drawdown, a non-profit dedicated to researching when and how global warming can be reversed, and his most recent book Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, offers a new and practical approach to understanding and acting on climate change.
Learn more and connect with Paul here:
Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.
Our Latest Articles & Interviews:
The Better World Weekly Newsletter
Join 7,000+ others exploring the who, what, why, and how of building a better world and sign up here.