Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
At first glance, assuming personal responsibility for climate change – and in response, bending over backward to trim your carbon footprint – might appear pointless.
After all, the carbon footprint of the average American who emits about 16 tons of carbon a year constitutes an infinitesimal, ultimately meaningless fraction when measured against the 37 billion tons of CO2 emitted globally per year.
The reality is that by taking small steps to reduce your impact – going vegan, forswearing air travel or paying for green electricity – you, as a single person, won’t reduce our carbon pollution enough to make a tangible difference in preserving our earth.
But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take these steps. Such actions by individual consumers can add up and influence industrial sectors to reduce the carbon emissions of our consumption-obsessed economies – and influence states to create climate-protection policies. And only through these big-scale efforts from the government and the private sector will tangible progress be made for the environment.
The world’s legislatures – the national and supranational – will determine whether the fight against Earth’s warming will be lost or won.
According to the 2018 IPCC special report, which issued a dire warning against exceeding a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature, it is imperative that “policymakers and practitioners” respond with radical action to brake carbon emissions.
As citizens of a democracy in a country with sky-high greenhouse emissions, we can do something to fight climate change by casting our ballots for those parties serious about lowering emissions through clear-eyed policies and supporting environmental lobby groups or organizing to protest the status quo. This much is the minimal civic duty of anyone concerned about the climate crisis.
But legislation takes time – and it’s time that we don’t have to waste. There are a number of personal steps we can each take in the meantime that are implicitly political.
Make the personal political yourself
Instead of waiting for the carbon pricing of jet fuel and meats to shape our behaviors, we can start reinventing the way we live now. Climate change and the transition to renewables will change everything we know: How we eat and travel, how we work, and even how we raise our families. We should start immediately and push the process in a direction that we choose, not one chosen for us.
A vegetarian diet, for example, can be cheaper, healthier and arguably just as tasty – if you have the right cookbooks. Vacations closer to home can be less expensive and, by avoiding airports and flying, longer and less stressful. Less is very often more – an idea anathema to capitalism as we know it.
This is how we the people will design our sustainable lifestyles of the future. Our ambition should be to devise alternatives that give us a high quality of life (better yet if “quality” is based on well-being and not volume of consumption) at as low as cost to the environment as possible.
Make markets work for the climate
Our consumption-driven market economies are fashioned by demand. In other words, the private sector responds to our choices as consumers. Say, for example, that boycotting plastic results in a 20% drop in sales of one traditionally plastic-packaged soft drink and increases sales of another soda brand bottled in biodegradable plant-based plastic. Surely, the soft drink sector would adjust by switching to the more popular bottle option. This is how the organic food assortments we have in our grocery stores came to life.
Likewise, by purchasing new, climate-friendly, perhaps costly commodities, such as an electric car or rooftop solar-power systems, we can help those industries create economies of scale that will bring prices down.
An added benefit: neighbors and friends witness that alternatives are possible.
Practice what you preach
For those involved in the climate movement, or even those who are just cheering from the sidelines, the nature of one’s personal choices affects the credibility of one’s arguments for urgent climate action. Observers – and I have talked with many people about it – put stock in whether activists, such as green politicos or even lay proponents, practice what they preach.
Recently, a number of Green party politicians in Germany caught a hail of flak for posting on Facebook photos from New Years’ holiday jaunts to places as far away South Africa and Chile, which required extensive air travel. Perhaps these politicians were being unfairly picked on – one of them traveled to South America with his family to visit in-laws – but the bad press hurts the cause. The Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has taken a stance against climate hypocrisy and now simply doesn’t fly.
Inspire instead of judge
One faux paus to avoid is the use of a moralizing tone or air of moral superiority when talking about your environmental choices. Even a whiff of “You should do what I do” can doom the most sincere advocate. Turning the lifestyles experiment into a game of one-upmanship only turns people off.
In the same vein, original and sometimes tough lifestyle choices tend to impress and inspire others when they aren’t done for show. If my Berlin office colleague Heinz can give up holidays in the Greek islands in exchange for vacation on the Baltic coast, then so can I. The choice of against-the-grain behavior is a protest in itself. It speaks loudly: “I do not accept the status quo and I’m doing it differently!”
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As historian Timothy Snyder notes in his book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”: “Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are a kind of vote. … In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”
In the fracas over climate change, the ostensibly rigid boundaries between the personal and the political break down pretty quickly. There’s nothing futile about putting your lifestyle choices where your politics are.