This commentary originally appeared on Ensia. Ensia is powered by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Solutions Journalism Network.
The media coverage of the Green New Deal, a plan unveiled by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress to overhaul the U.S. economy by investing in renewable energy and green jobs, focused as much on its reception as on its substance. Republicans panned it as socialism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mocked it. Many columnists, such as the New York Times’ David Brooks, criticized its heavy reliance on public spending and government-provided jobs. Other critics questioned the plan’s broad focus. What, they asked, did provision of medical care have to do with overhauling America’s energy network?
The casual observer could be forgiven for dismissing the plan and the response to it, especially because it has no chance of passing in the current Congress. But the plan is a sign of a larger shift in environmental thinking. There is a growing recognition of the need for structural changes to address the climate crisis and other serious environmental problems. An increasing number of influential office holders and thinkers are calling for policies that go far beyond mere tinkering. To overhaul our energy system and preserve threatened ecosystems, they recognize that we must aggressively disrupt the status quo.
The best part of the Green New Deal is its insistence on bold steps to slow climate change and develop an economy based on renewable energy. As its name suggests, the plan is predicated on the idea that individual behavioral change will not lead to sharp reductions in greenhouse emissions or deliver meaningful environmental progress in other areas. We must, its authors insist, overhaul our economy to meet our environmental responsibilities. Even those who question this premise should celebrate the plan’s audacious goals.
Other environmental thinkers echo this skepticism about behavioral change. David Wallace-Wells, author of a recent book on climate change, concludes, “The effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.” While Wallace-Wells may find fault with some aspects of the Green New Deal, including its silence regarding nuclear power, he enthusiastically endorses the need to think big.
We must focus our efforts not on changing our individual behavior but on far-reaching communal changes.
The emphasis on the need to overhaul our economic, technological and social systems is a welcome departure from the fixation with individual behavior that often dominates popular environmental discourse. The furor over use of plastic straws, which became a litmus test of environmental responsibility in some circles over the past couple of years, suggests the limitations of this preoccupation with individual action. Americans concerned about excessive use of plastic should worry much more about laws recently passed by several states that ban municipalities from imposing bans on plastic bag distribution in retail stores than about whether the diner at the next table is using a plastic straw. To make substantial environmental progress we must get beyond environmental narcissism — excessive concern about the consumption habits of ourselves and our family and friends. We must focus our efforts not on changing our individual behavior but on far-reaching communal changes.
Individual vs. collective action
Recent developments in St. Paul suggest that this will be a challenge. In October 2018 the city implemented a new residential waste collection system. Under the old system, households contracted with a trash hauler of their choice. St. Paul was one of the largest cities in the United States to use this free-choice model. On many blocks, residents contracted with several hauling firms. The result was that trucks from multiple haulers plied the same alleys on different days, spewing exhaust and wearing down the road.
Fed up with this system, residents held forums throughout the city to solicit feedback on the existing system and ideas about alternatives. (Disclosure: I helped organize these forums.) These forums ultimately led to a state-sanctioned process under which St. Paul negotiated a contract with haulers that divided the city into zones so each neighborhood was assigned a single hauler. Although recent events have called the system — and the city’s response — into question, currently it works like this: No longer do several trucks a week come barreling down residents’ alleys. Instead, recycling and trash collection now occur on the same day, reducing emissions and truck traffic. Russ Stark, St. Paul’s chief resilience officer, estimated that switching to organized collection reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with garbage truck traffic by as much as 75%.
Ultimately, the most important thing that we can do as citizens is to change the systems that pollute the Earth.
As with any new system, there were complaints from various quarters. Some of the most vociferous criticism came from those who had previously shared bins with neighbors, a practice that, though technically illegal, was widespread. These bin-sharers argued that the new system, which required each household to pay for its own bin to fairly distribute operational costs, discouraged conservation and was unduly expensive.
Why, I wondered, would some of my neighbors dwell on the remote possibility that a sliver of households might produce more trash under the new system when, as a city, we were drastically slashing diesel emissions from garbage trucks? Couldn’t they see that this focus on individual behavior was misplaced next to the significant environmental benefits of putting an end to the parade of trucks?
Catalyze structural change
The desire to become a more ecologically responsible consumer and citizen is admirable, but it falls well short of the environmental change we need. Even as more Americans packed their groceries into reusable bags and toted their metal water bottles to the gym, Congress passed virtually no significant environmental legislation. By defining environmental citizenship as responsible consumption, sustainability advocates downplay the need for mass action to catalyze structural change. Fortunately, a new generation of leaders is unveiling a much more wide-ranging environmental agenda, as exemplified by the Green New Deal.
Of course, we should encourage personal environmental responsibility. Modifying our individual dietary, travel and consumption habits can lead to reduced pollution and better air quality, among other benefits. We should make these smaller improvements — but not at the expense of the much-needed focus on transformational environmental changes.
Ultimately, the most important thing that we can do as citizens is to change the systems that pollute the Earth. Those in the vanguard of the environmental revolution that we so desperately need will not spend their waking hours discussing the finer points of eschewing plastic straws. They will be pounding on the doors of their congressional representatives to demand the wide-ranging changes that only government, directly or indirectly, can deliver.
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