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Commentary: Climate change can be stopped by individual and systemic action
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Commentary: Climate change can be stopped by individual and systemic action

Commentary: Fighting climate change requires individual action and systemic change


Gandipet Lake Park in Hyderabad (India), after the trash was mostly cleared up. Image: Arya Dara

By Arya Dara

Have you ever felt as if anything you do doesn’t matter? In high school, I felt exactly that way.

For almost two years, I spent my weekends cleaning up trash and a park with a local charity. The park had suffered from years of mismanagement, and it didn’t even have trash cans.

My charity was already in the fray when garbage began covering parts of the landscape like frosting.

This frosting is disgusting.

I went almost every week and enjoyed it, despite all the hard work. I signed up for my first cleanup to help with my college application. But I fell in love with the work – especially since I felt like I was making a difference for the first couple of months.

Slowly, however, I began to feel depressed.  Sometimes it was so hot that my skin felt like a baked potato. Other days, it was so heavy that I felt as though I was walking through a carwash.

That wasn’t the reason for the attitude change.

Six to seven months later, I was cleaning a corner in the park when I felt a strong sense de déjà vu. I was there the week before, and my garbage picker was in the same spot.

I was certain that I had cleaned it before. But why was the beer bottle in the exact same spot? Why was the candy wrapper still stuck under the rock in the same manner? I believe that someone left more garbage in the week I was gone.

Then, suddenly, I felt like Sisyphus surrounded by his rock.

Benjamin Sovacool, a professor of energy policies at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom, said that my garbage-picking work is what’s known as direct action. This is an action that people take on their own and not rely on politicians, business leaders or others.

“They’re actions under your direct control that can be implemented quickly and personally,” he said.

My direct action didn’t seem to be working. This could be applied to other environmental issues such as climate change.

Direct action to combat climate change is often very different. Sovacool stated that instead of actively trying to do something, most of it involves cutting back on things we normally do.

“As consumers and households we actually control more than 70% of carbon emissions,” he said. “So changing our own behaviors and practices is an excellent way to address the climate crisis. Our research shows that the best ways to reduce carbon emissions are to get rid of your car, walk, bike, or use mass transit.

“These things can cut almost half of your emissions over a given year, “ Sovacool said.

My story about the park clean-up ended in a happy ending. The charity convinced local government to assist. To encourage people to use the trash cans, it also provided speakers and recorded messages. People littering were subject to fines by police officers. When I got to university, there was barely any trash every week. We were lucky because the local government listened.

This applies also to climate change.

“(Climate change) is a mix of our collective behavior, and our inability to accept responsibility and change our behaviors,” Sovacool said. “But it is also embedded in our economy and the structure of the state. The two reinforce each other, “

This means that changing our behavior can’t combat all of climate change, he said. We need to make societal changes, whether it is reforming our economic systems and implementing new policies and governance. How can we get the government listening and making changes?

A protest by young people against climate change at the University of Maine Image: Thomas Good via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent article published in the journal of Energy Research & Social Science, Sovacool and his colleague Alexander Dunlap talk about radical techniques to combat climate change. They describe several methods people have used in order to quickly effect social change, including civil defiance. They define that as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act, contrary to law, carried out to communicate opposition to law and policy of government,” the authors said.

This tactic was used successfully in the Vietnam War protests, Indian independence movement and Civil Rights movement. Civil disobedience could include sit-ins and strikes, sabotage, vandalism, demonstrations, and sit-ins. But are these tactics effective in combating climate change?

Sabotage seems to be quite effective. In 2008, a saboteur broke in to the Kingsnorth powerstation in the United Kingdom. They ruined one of the turbines, and left behind a poster protesting the station’s usage of coal. Sovacool stated that the station was forced to stop production for four hours, temporarily causing the UK’s greenhouse gas levels to drop by 2 per cent.

The lesson is that success relies on a combination of tactics in a sustained and relentless manner,  he said.

“The material, cultural, and social agency of actors can be utilized to shape and change the structures of the state,” he said. “Direct action is one of the best avenues for exerting this agency.”

Here it is, an action program for individuals to combat climate change. We can bike to work, shop for local produce, and conserve our electricity usage all we want, but it’s not going to be enough.

Participate in strikes, boycott companies that are environmentally harmful or hold a sit-in. And if all else fails, remember, you can mix a cup of sugar in a ton of liquid concrete to make sure that it doesn’t set properly


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