If you think individuals' actions can't solve our environmental crisis, you're wrong – here's why

Consumers keep the economy’s engine running, and more and more of us are figuring out we don’t need to endlessly buy and waste stuff to stay happy

Georgina Wilson-Powell
Sunday 10 March 2019 18:15
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Children suing US government over failure to protect them from climate change

I was asked last week for International Women’s Day who was inspiring me in 2019. My answer was a 16-year-old Swedish girl. If you don’t know the name Greta Thunberg, she’s the schoolgirl behind the fast-growing student movement, supporters of which are striking every Friday to highlight how much our governments are effectively sticking their fingers in their ears and humming every time anyone asks what we’re doing about our growing environmental crisis.

The American movement Sunrise is on the same track. Students are leading the way in challenging their congresswomen and men on their environmental records and commitments. It’s easy to roll your eyes and talk about how that won’t change anything, but in the age of global instant communication, individuals have more clout than ever. Arguably, the Parkland survivors and March For Our Lives organisers have done more to highlight gun violence and hold lawmakers to account than decades of failed policies.

And it’s not just about the idealistic “yoof” either. The relatively new grassroots climate activism campaign, Extinction Rebellion, is holding a festival this weekend in Bristol where it can train up to 1,000 people at a time in civil non-violent disobedience. Their website reveals local demonstrations and actions from Cornwall to Scotland. By disrupting events, landmark attractions and busy traffic intersections, they’re providing a revitalised blueprint for how a small number of individuals can have a much bigger impact than most governments and corporations would like us to believe.

I’ve been running a sustainable living magazine for the past two years and each week I’m bowled over by how many small actions individual readers are making in their own lives. From DIY skincare and cleaning products, to swapping away from brands who don’t have strong sustainability policies or just buying less – each reader is vocal on social media about what they’re changing. So much so, my focus this year is highlighting #everydayactivism to celebrate this.

It is easy to dismiss this change as having little impact on crucial policymaking, and I’ve certainly encountered the “one person can’t make a difference” argument from both people I know well and those I don’t, but ultimately consumers keep the economy’s engine running, and more and more of us are figuring out we don’t need to endlessly buy and waste stuff to stay happy. Helping to solve the environmental crisis is often at odds with the consumerist culture we’ve been indoctrinated into believing is unavoidable, but it’s the one aspect that most of us can engage with at some level, even if it’s just by minimising our click-to-buy habit.

Halting climate change is tied in completely with consumer change, and that has to start both at the top and the bottom of the purchasing chain.

Take Walkers for example. With the widespread realisation that crisp packets don’t biodegrade for 80 years, it only took a few weeks of individuals posting their empty crisp packets back for this global brand to start to take responsibility for its packaging (of 6bn crisp packets a year), and officially launch a recycling scheme.

Plastic straws, once an aspect of daily life so ubiquitous they were practically invisible, have gone from benign utility to visual eco-sin in less than two years. That swift fall from grace didn’t come from any government, NGO or brand – it came from everyday people rallying support, asking their local restaurants and bars to stop serving them. Compare that to the UK government who still hasn’t decided if it’s banning single-use plastics (the EU will from 2020) and decided not to roll out the “latte levy” on the 2.5bn non-recyclable coffee cups we Brits get through a year.

The perceived wisdom is that individuals can’t change the world – but that is wrong. Influencers wouldn’t exist if that was true – they are a very pure example of exactly how impactful individuals are, and the magazine Marketing Week reported a 65 per cent increase in brand spend on these individuals last year alone.

If Kylie Jenner can sell a billion dollars worth of lipgloss from her phone, surely a few other individuals can inspire us to take action on, literally, the future of our planet?

Yes, some individuals have more sway than others – David Attenborough compared to me, for example – but we do all have some impact, even if it’s only on friends, loved ones and colleagues at work. We don’t live in isolation, even if our communities are online.

I agree not everything can, or should, be fixed by individuals saying enough is enough, but what our actions do is create hope. Without hope, we’re back to shrugging our shoulders as fracking takes place, as rivers are polluted so we can have cheap denim, and quite frankly, standing by while Rome burns.

Georgina Wilson-Powell is the founder of pebble and pebblefest, a new eco festival happening on 27 April

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