A recent Vox piece by NRDC staffer Mary Annaise Heglar starts with a bold headline, “I Work in the Environmental Movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The author says that when she meets people and tells them she works at an environmental organization their first reaction is to express guilt for their poor environmental performance. The article then makes the argument that individual action on the environment (e.g., recycling) is not meaningful and that the focus on individual action just make people feel guilty for their failure to protect the planet, which disempowers people from taking action to create the systemic change we need.
While it is true that we need systemic change first and foremost to address environmental challenges like the climate crisis and mass extinction at the speed and scale that is required, it is questionable that encouraging individual action on the environment somehow prevents or hinders the collective action we need. It’s often quite the opposite – people take action to green their own lives, and through this process realize that there is only so much they can do on an individual level. They then take action in their community, with corporations, and nationally with others to create systemic change. But, for many people, it all starts with those individual actions.
It’s also questionable that Americans are feeling guilty about their personal environmental actions. I’ve been working at Green America for almost 20 years, and I’ve talked to many people all over the country. When I tell them where I work, they almost never respond that they are guilty of poor environmental conduct. Almost always, they ask questions about Green America’s work and the most impactful practices they can take to create a greener planet.
That is an encouraging sign because Americans are some of the least green people on Earth. For several years, National Geographic partnered with GlobeScan to produce the GreenDex, a survey of environmental attitudes and practices in countries around the globe. The surveys consistently find that US residents are amongst the least green people on Earth in practice and feel little guilt over it. In general, the developed world’s peoples are less green than the developing world. India and China consistently have the greenest populations. If anything, we need ways to encourage individual Americans to be more green, including recycling more, since our recycling rates in the US are low compared to much of the world. And, once they increase their own recycling and question their waste, encourage them to use their voices on the local and national level to increase re-use and recycling and reduce the production of inherently harmful products, like plastic bags and water bottles.
Being Green is Good for You and the Planet
It might help more Americans to go green if they better understood that being green actually improves their quality of life. It’s not about making people feel guilty, it’s about protecting themselves and others from harm.
Using greener products at home, such as green cleaners, reduces toxic exposures and protects your health. Drinking tap water instead of bottled water is better for the planet and exposes you to less microplastics. Eating produce and whole grains (especially organic) instead of process foods means a healthier diet for you and less impact on ecosystems. The list goes on. Being green is an act of self-preservation.
People who take environmental action in their own lives are more likely to be activists
From what we’ve seen at Green America, people who take action to green their lives are the ones who go on to take action in their community, to push large corporations to clean up their practices, and to promote national governmental action on environmental issues like climate change or toxins. For most people, their “aha moment” comes when they realize that the products they are bringing into their home are toxic, that the food they are eating is unhealthy, or that a new power plant or manufacturing facility coming to their community will threaten their health. A number of people then realize that individual action is not enough and move on to taking action collectively – either locally or nationally – to create systemic change that will benefit all.
It is much rarer for someone who’s never thought much about environmental impacts in their daily lives, or done anything to green their own life, to read about the climate crisis in the newspaper and suddenly say, “I’m going to become an activist on this issue.” Also, people who are not making personal environmental choices are less likely to prioritize national action on environmental issues like climate change in relation to other issues, like jobs, healthcare, or education. In the US, where people are taking less action than in other nations to protect the planet in their personal lives, for years we’ve seen that a bare majority of people tell pollsters that they agree human-caused climate change is real, and it has not been their top concern. That is starting to change, with more people agreeing that humans are causing climate change and we need government action on it, because people are seeing that climate change, and the increasing storms, floods, heat waves, and fire events it brings is threatening their own lives and the lives of their children down the road.
The Collective Acts of Individuals Change Corporate Conduct
At Green America, we totally agree that if we want to address the largest environmental challenges of our time, we need to act at the systems level. With the current dysfunction in Washington DC, some of the largest opportunities for change in the US are at the corporate level. Here, individual consumers are playing a major role in moving consumer-facing companies to adopt greener practices.
Take food as an example. As more and more consumers nationwide have woken up to the dangers in our agricultural system, and the risks to themselves, their families and the planet from toxic monocultures and CAFOs, they have been shifting their consumption from food produced with GMOs designed to be doused in toxic pesticides to organics and non-GMO options. Each individual purchase does not, in itself, have a large impact, but collectively, the shift in food habits is having a dramatic impact on major food companies, which are moving in the direction of regenerative agriculture that nourishes the soil and sequesters carbon, livestock that is more humanely raised with less antibiotics, and ingredients that people can recognize. Activists groups have been calling for these changes for years, but it is consumer pressure that is finally moving the dial – companies can’t afford to lose market share.
That consumer pressure is expressed through changes in purchases, with consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Z, foregoing brand loyalty and instead really understanding the supply chain and impacts of products they purchase. And, it happens through consumers calling on companies through email petitions, phone calls, and social media actions to adopt greener practices. Hundreds of thousands of consumers took action with Green America to get 12 major food companies –from General Mills to Sabra/Pepsi -- to offer non-GMO options and/or increase their organic options. These companies have told us that it is the combination of shifting purchases and consumer activism that got them to move on GMOs.
We need to get more Americans on board with being green
At a time when people are feeling increasingly hopeless about the future, it is important to help people understand that change begins with individuals, and when people start to question the choices they are making and shift their purchases and practices to support people and the planet, they are taking actions that matter. When we then ask these folks to take collective action to push corporations to be more responsible as well, they are far more likely to heed the call, because they understand what’s at stake, and since they are acting in their own lives to create a greener future, they feel more empowered to call on corporations to do the same. We need more people caring about recycling, toxins in the home, and safe food in order to have an educated and active group of Americans who will push corporate America to care as well.