Does the Individual’s Fight For Sustainability Matter?

Plastic manufacturers and fossil fuel corporations seem to be responsible for the majority of the environment’s problems. So can individual choices make a difference? (Image Credit: Jnzsl’s Photo, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

There seems to be a pattern of thought currently floating around regarding sustainable living. How recent it is, I’m not sure exactly. But the take home message goes something like this:

It makes no difference whether an individual tries to live sustainably, big corporations are the ones making all the difference anyway.

Now as always when I’m arguing against a problem that sprang up on my social media feed (which I probably do far too much of), I have to make concessions. I do believe that fossil fuel corporations, plastic manufacturers and their ilk are responsible for the majority of the carbon emissions and various forms of pollution that are wreaking havoc in ecosystems worldwide. What I want to challenge here is the notion that the actions of individuals are meaningless; that your attempts to cut down on meat, avoid short-range flights, reduce plastic use etc. are futile and nothing more than self-gratification.

The whole “one individual can’t make a difference” argument has been wheeled out before, most notably by non-voters. The consequences of following this thought pattern can be disastrous. And there’s more than enough evidence to the contrary. The ‘green movement’ used to be the cause of a much smaller group, but the more individuals took notice and started thinking, and talking, about making their lives more sustainable, the more people got on board. A swathe of vegetarian-friendly restaurants didn’t just pop up overnight, increased demand led to business owners adapting their menus. If we transition back to “don’t bother, won’t make a difference anyway”, we give companies no incentive to change their behaviour.

A great example of this took place in Australia earlier this year. A major supermarket chain, Coles, backflipped on its decision to stop offering plastic bags at checkout. The public rallied, with individuals on social media and environmental groups slamming the decision. Coles backflipped once again, phasing out plastic bags. Had the prevailing attitude of the public been “I can’t make a difference”, I’m not 100% sure the result would have played out as it did.

Increased awareness and action by individuals to live a more sustainable life may have small returns, but increased prevalence of people willing to make changes to their lives and show others that they care, that matters. Public consensus is what a government should respond to, and if public consensus on the benefits of sustainable living grows, this should in turn lead to meaningful global change.

Or maybe I’m just naive.

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