I took Global Environmental Politics this past term. It was extraordinarily useful in arming me with the terms and frameworks that explain the phenomenon around me. The course aimed to explain how power starts, inhibits, affects and influences environmental change.
The concept, “individualization of responsibility”, was one of my favourite terms because it described an issue I myself was wrestling with. Michael Maniates, who introduced this term in his article Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, believes that the world is trending towards an individual-based sense of environmentalism. It means that we understand that individuals hold the key to change, as opposed to groups, communities, governments, or corporations. Individuals are seen as the ones who can take action to save the world, whether it be through planting trees, riding bicycles or buying eco-products. This is the logic behind campaigns that promote purchase of more sustainable products: if people change their purchasing decisions, the change in demand therefore causes product or service suppliers to change their practices as well.
Michael Maniates is disappointed with this trend. He thinks it shifts attention away from the collective action that is really effective. I think to too. There’s only so much individuals can effect by themselves.
So what if I bring my own mug to my favourite coffee store? It doesn’t stop the barista from whipping out a disposable cup for the next customer. Even worse, the barista sometimes has already started writing down my order on a disposable cardboard cupholder.
On top of that, individualizing responsibility is distracting us from the systems that are at fault. With the perception of the consumer as key to stopping use of disposable cups, it leads consumers like me to expend extra energy to ensure I bring my reusable mug each time I think I will end up at a coffee shop.
What if, instead of the responsibility of producing less waste at a coffee shop falling to me to bring a reusable mug, it’s the business’ responsibility to operate with less waste, or the government’s responsibility to prohibit consumers and businesses alike from producing waste from non-essential disposable goods? In another case, what if the responsibility of buying more eco-friendly products that often come at a higher price falls not on consumers? Rather, perhaps all products should meet higher standards for environmental impact and sustainability, and be available at affordable prices.
This video encapsulates this shift towards an individualization of responsibility. It features Lauren Singer, who runs the Trash is for Tossers blog on living a zero-waste lifestyle. The shift is when she says one of the things she’s learnt from living zero-waste is that instead of looking to governments and policy-making as a way to effect change, she sees the huge potential in individual actions.
This is troubling for me, especially since I believe that Singer had an honourable mission (her story inspired me to change some of my practices as well). I do support her decision to live zero-waste to reflect her desire to protect the environment, because I think it’s worthwhile to change your personal lifestyle to reflect your beliefs.
However, I do not think that personal lifestyle change is a better way to effect change than collective action. Singer doesn’t explicitly say that urging government action is not the most effective solution, but the promise she found in individual action conveys a sense that individual action is the way to go in contrast to changing government policy.
Never forget that there is so much more we can do together to enact change on a wider scale. Focussing on what you do in your personal life overlooks the root causes of problems. In order to respond to lack of supply, to respond to ineffectual laws and enforcement, to motivate stronger ambition for environmental goals, we need to organize together to change our community, city, province, country, corporations, institutions and cultures.