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climate change








Changing Separately and Together

I grew up in a tradition, liberal Quakerism, that puts great emphasis on individual action for good causes. Quakers often focus on changes in personal behavior, in part because our own behavior is within our control. The actions of policy makers, governments, corporations, and even other individuals are subject only indirectly to our control or even influence. We can try to persuade policy makers, and we can buy only morally-acceptable products, but in the end, our voice is small and weak compared to the forces arrayed against us. Our example may persuade, and if it does not, at least we did what was available to us.

As on other issues, so, it may seem, with climate change. We may or may not transform the world, but we can transform ourselves. We can choose to insulate our houses, thereby using less fuel to heat and cool them, for example. We can turn off lights. We can drive less or not at all. And so forth.

The problem is that, in this case, individual behavior changes not only won't, but can't, do the job. If everyone who worries about climate change cut his or her greenhouse gas emissions back to 28% of what they are now—a figure that climate scientists say we have to reach by 2050—that would be a small part of the pie because there aren't, as yet, enough people willing to make what they fear would be drastic and crippling changes in lifestyle. Even if there were, our major institutions, like transit, architecture, city planning, food distribution, and other buying and selling, need rethinking and restructuring, or all our individual changes will mean hardship for us without leading to the transformation that is needed.

This does not mean that cutting back is useless. It's important to be cutting back when we are advocating that others cut back and that society change its ways of doing its business. But it does mean that people who, because of their situations, are limited in the amount they can cut back, need not feel guilty if they are doing what they can do and working in other ways toward solutions.

There are any number of people, for example, who have to drive everywhere because of where they live and the inadequacy of our public transit. Taking light rail or the bus isn't an option for these people because neither is available where they are. It would be unfair of me to argue that these people should feel guilty, even though I never drive anywhere. I live in a city where I can get public transit or walk to my destinations. What I can, and do, say is that, on a policy level, we need to invest heavily in the cleanest and most efficient public transit network we can develop, and quickly, and we need to stop building our communities as if everybody can just go on driving everywhere. And if somebody who has no choice but to use a car wants to join in calling for better transit, I think that is a good thing. And I won't suggest—again, because it would be unfair—that people in this situation are somehow failing if they don't renounce driving immediately. They are doing the best they can, and in any case, a decision to renounce driving is not only not possible for them, but does little to change the poor planning and design that caused their dilemma in the first place.

Individual change, that is, has its limitations—especially in dealing with a very large problem like climate change. We can and should change our lives to cut our own individual greenhouse gas emissions. But we also, and simultaneously, need new designs, new technologies, new ideologies. Those who can't change to a completely clean life—and that includes all of us—need not thereby stop working for a sustainable world. We can change separately, and this is both admirable and helpful. But it is even more important that we find ways to change together, as a society.