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A new generation of leaders understands that individual actions won’t fix our environmental problems

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's plan is a sign of a larger shift in environmental thinking.

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.

David Soll
David Soll
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.

David Soll is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where he teaches history and environmental studies. He is the author of “Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply.”


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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/22/2019 - 12:32 pm.

    Yes, it’s finally time to admit that the “lifestyle” individual approach was never much more than a consumerism model that catered to ego’s rather than solutions. It was the perfect neoliberal solution for those who didn’t believe in making government work, yet wanted to see themselves as environmentally “responsible”. It’s produce zero results for decades while almost every environmental problem we face has continued to worsen. The idea that we’d change the world by changing our buying habits was always kind of delusional because buying habits are subject to marketing. The other problem with the consumer approach was that for the most part, once environmentally marketed products became ubiquitous, the “best” of them were almost always the more expensive product, putting them out of reach of a lot of shoppers.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/23/2019 - 03:10 pm.

      Neoliberalism is a vague and generally worthless term to begin with, but you seem to just be applying it to anything you don’t like. The people I know who run the local zero waste group seem to be mostly Bernie supporters or Green party members.

      Individual action is not sufficient to save the environment, but it still makes a difference. At one time I probably purchased several hundred plastic bottles a year. Now that number is probably less than 5. Multiply that by millions of people and it has an impact.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/23/2019 - 04:24 pm.

        Neoliberalism: every advantage for the few, austerity for the many; globalization for corporations, banks and money/capital, ecological blowback and economic and political powerlessness for people; less taxes for rentier/capital gains wealth and more for working people; defined by right-wing Chicago-school economists particularly Milton Friedman, embraced by the Clintonite/Establisment wing of the Democratic party and otherwise taken for granted by no-other-alternative, Reagan/Thatcherite, free market Republicans.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/26/2019 - 10:15 am.

        I think you guys must have had a study group meeting or something and decided that the best way to marginalize progressives is to keep claiming that “neoliberalism” is a vague and undefined term. My impression is that “centrists” and moderates just don’t know how to deal with the neoliberal critique, so they’re trying to re-marginalize the concept. We’ll see if that works.

        In the meantime we can and will keep explaining exactly what it means, and why it explains, describes, and predicts bi-partisan failure.

  2. Submitted by Richard Adair on 07/22/2019 - 12:38 pm.

    Nice article, David. There are so many barriers to making this important shift. One is the psychological comfort of imagining that our personal behaviors and neighborhoods are more important than they are. A kind of smugness that is derided (not without reason) by those on the right as “political correctness”.

    My favorite recent example from the Twin Cities is the uproar about building a light rail line (that will support 11 million non-automobile trips in the west metro per year) in the backyards of some normally environmentally conscious folks in Minneapolis. “Save our lakes. Save our trees. Save our walking paths.”

    The trade-off of degrading a somewhat natural area near the center of a big metro area against the overall benefit of building a major piece of low-carbon infrastructure for the future was a tough sell. At local meetings this global, Green New Deal perspective was rarely voiced, right here in one of the most progressive cities in the U.S.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 07/22/2019 - 07:54 pm.

      Except you have to be able to pass the bills. And in regards to LRT, there were other higher dense places they could have built it instead. You are banking on some people giving up their cars/buses to the extent it is worthwhile vs building where its already dense. And then you justify it, you build more huge complexes and businesses vs again looking at places like the norths side of Mpls to have it go to Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove where more residents lack cars and need to get to work.
      I agree with some of her ideas, but thinking it’s going to magically happen if you yell loud enough vs having to compromise to get bills passed is how we ended up with this fool of a president.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/23/2019 - 03:03 pm.

        I agree with you on the idea that you need to compromise to pass bills and that yelling won’t solve anything.

        That being said, the LRT route is a horrible example. That was just a group of rich NIMBYs who delayed and drove up the costs because they opposed the obvious and best route because it went near them.

  3. Submitted by Jacob Herbers on 07/22/2019 - 01:11 pm.

    Disappointed in this article, it is irresponsible to discourage individual actions. This should not be framed as individual vs. collective action, since: that not a binary, it’s a spectrum, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.

    • Submitted by Richard Sethre on 07/28/2019 - 10:21 am.

      This comment seems to me to be a result of misreading the article. The author clearly is not discouraging individual actions. If fact, he praises them, but does also – accurately – advocate for the need to add community actions.
      Good article, thanks to MinnPost for publishing it.

  4. Submitted by William Duncan on 07/23/2019 - 08:45 am.

    Of course it will take individual shifts in consciousness and actions, and collective responses. It indeed has been part of the general method of consumer marketing to focus entirely in individual actions – as long as none of those actions challenge the status quo. Pollinator extinction is a good example – there is next to no talk about changing agriculture to better serve people and pollinators – the onus is instead put on individuals to buy and plant wildflowers.

    One caution however, that I think people on the left do not generally consider when discussing climate change or the green new deal, is the idea that we are going to change everything without really changing anything; we are going to build a “renewable” economy but nothing much is gong to have to change about our consumer habits.

    Fact is, solar panels and wind turbines neither generate nor renew themselves, and the massive amount of energy and rare earth minerals to manufacture such, pretty much dictates that a “renewable” society is also a radically scaled down society in which we have a LOT less energy to run things.

    Nothing will change if we aren’t honest about that. The conundrum here is, this consumer society basically says we can have whatever we want when we want it, as long as we can pay for it, and being honest about what consumerism has done to the earth and what needs to be done to fix it, just can’t compete.

    What are we offering that is better than the economy we have?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/23/2019 - 03:13 pm.

      Actually, the fact is that while solar and wind do require materials and processes that are bad for the environment, the impact is far less than that of fossil fuels. Don’t discard solutions because they aren’t perfect.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/23/2019 - 04:14 pm.

        Extrapolate out “renewables” to replace all of fossil fuels, and the environmental degradation will be just as bad if not worse. Never mind none of it actually scales to thst degree. Just because we want to believe it doesn’t make it true.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/23/2019 - 01:07 pm.

    One of my favorite Milton Friedman quotes is “When governments attempt to control the economy for the good of the people, they end up controlling the people for the good of the economy.” I’m pleased that advocates for the “New Green Deal” are being open and honest about what it all means. AOC’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti recently revealed that “it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all … we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” Thanks for your honesty, sir.

    In a free society, they’d never be successful in getting it implemented. Which I guess is their point.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 07/25/2019 - 08:35 pm.

      We don’t live in a free society currently.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/27/2019 - 11:02 am.

      Freedman has issued many facile quotes during the course of his career. Remember when he thought globalism was a “new” thing and world was flat?

      At any rate, if you want to know what a neoliberal looks like… it’s Friedman, and this quote is a perfect example, and I’ll bet it was issued before the Great Recession.

      • Submitted by carter meland on 07/28/2019 - 09:38 am.

        You are crossing your Friedmans, sir. Milton was the populizer of this free market bs and Thomas was/is its “liberal” salesperson. I don’t believe they are related and since Milton died in 2006, the quote does indeed predate the Great Recession, probably by decades. Look before you leap when talking Friedmans, my good fellow, or you may end up with egg on your face.

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