If you want to do something meaningful for Earth Day, I recommend contacting one of your elected representatives tomorrow morning (Member of Parliament, etc) to share your concerns about climate change or another environmental issue. If there are going to be solutions to the dire environmental problems we face, they are going to be at the level of all of society, not at the level of individual consumption. Signing the petition against the Northern Gateway pipeline wouldn’t hurt either. Every way you look at them, the oil sands are an environmental disaster and a violation of our obligation to pass on a healthy planet to our descendants.
Michael Maniates explains why we must go beyond individual action well in his article: “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” (Global Environmental Politics 1:3, August 2001):
The other road, a rocky one, winds towards a future where environmentally concerned citizens come to understand, by virtue of spirited debate and animated conversation, the “consumption problem.” They would see that their individual consumption choices are environmentally important, but that their control over these choices is constrained, shaped, and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective citizen action, as opposed to individual consumer behavior. This future world will not be easy to reach. Getting there means challenging the dominant view—the production, technological, efficiency-oriented perspective that infuses contemporary definitions of progress—and requires linking explorations of consumption to politically charged issues that challenge the political imagination. Walking this path means becoming attentive to the underlying forces that narrow our understanding of the possible.
To many, alas, an environmentalism of “plant a tree, save the world” appears to be apolitical and non-confrontational, and thus ripe for success. Such an approach is anything but, insofar as it works to constrain our imagination about what is possible and what is worth working towards. It is time for those who hope for renewed and rich discussion about “the consumption problem” to come to grips with this narrowing of the collective imagination and the growing individualization of responsibility that drives it, and to grapple intently with ways of reversing the tide.
If you really want to take individual action, I would suggest that you make a start on doing something substantial:
- Resolving to eat less meat
- Resolving to travel less
- Resolving to have fewer children
At the very least, replace a few incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED alternatives. Then at least you will be making a contribution with a value that extends beyond 24 hours.