“Ultimately, how, when, where, and in what form to act is up to you. The most important thing is simply to act.”

Jason Mark

Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global carbon emissions.

That’s a fact. An Inconvenient Truth, you might say. And it’s a reality that motivates a bleak state of mind for many students.

Here’s an example:

You’re checking out at the grocery store and the cashier gives you the option to use plastic bags or pay a dollar for reusable ones. You have the money — but, like, you don’t wanna. After all, you could put that dollar toward something fun; something you really want. (No judgement; we’ve been there, too).

“Whatever,” you tell yourself. “Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global carbon emissions, anyway — me using plastic bags won’t make a difference.”

“Plastic, please,” you say.

A plastic shopping bag.

Here’s another:

You’ve just graduated and landed a sweet job that pays you well. (Hey, congrats!) After many months of saving, you decide it’s time to make your first big post-grad financial move: you’re gonna buy a car. (Double congrats!) For roughly the same price, you could get an electric car or a solely gas-powered one. But, like, the gas-powered one looks cooler. And you want to flex. (Again, no judgement).

“Who cares,” you think. “Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global carbon emissions, anyway — me buying a non-electric car won’t change anything.”

You drive off into the sunset in your brand-new, gas-powered vehicle.

A car drives away.

OK, you get the picture. In short, the main culprits behind climate change aren’t our day-to-day actions; they’re policies and corporations. That’s true. But, because that’s true, it’s easy to use it to resign ourselves to climate change doom and believe our individual actions won’t, or can’t, make a difference.

Here’s why that’s not true.

Individual versus political action

In a 2019 article for Sierra magazine, writer Jason Mark notes how, until recently, the conversation about climate change focused mostly on things you can do yourself — like changing your light bulbs to LEDs or eating plant-based.

However, he says, now people focus mostly on political actions — like lobbying for policy changes.

And you’ve seen this shift unfold in real time — just think of how many articles there have been rercently about holding big companies accountable for pollution. One of these articles, by Dr. Michael E. Mann and Jonathan Brockopp, says, “…a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable.”

Or, in other words, if composting makes you think, “OK! That’s it! That’s all I have to do,” then, yes, maybe there’s room for you to shift your focus.

A false binary

However, it’s a mistake to think there’s no grey area between doing eco-friendly things on your own and demanding large-scale change. Mark says focusing only on system change can make you feel like the little things you do everyday don’t matter, or that you’re “allowed” to keep your non-eco-friendly habits because, hey, aren’t you doing enough already?

And that’s just not true.

Leger douzable wags his finger.

The things you do in your day-to-day life do matter — both on their own and to remind yourself what we’re fighting for.

It’s like this: yes, corporate polluters are the main ones responsible for climate change. But corporations are made up of people. And, by choosing sustainable habits when you can, you remind yourself that you, too, are a “people” — so, if you can make changes, you should demand the same of the people at the top.

Essential actions

OK, so, since individual actions are important, which ones should you prioritize?

Well, ultimately, that’s up to you. You know what eco-friendly habits are out there — it’s all the stuff you were taught in school:

  • Reduce your waste
  • Unplug your appliances
  • Grow your own food
  • Compost your organic waste

You get the gist. And, you don’t have to do everything — since you can’t single-handedly stop climate change by using metal straws, the point of keeping green habits is to fuel your commitment to the larger cause. So, whatever you decide to do, the most important thing is to balance what works with what’s practical for you.

A scale.

That last bit — about being practical — is super important. Often, when people talk about the importance of being environmentally friendly in your personal life, they ignore class privilege, racism and traditional cultural practices.

For instance, writer Kima Nieves has pointed out how (primarily white) vegans often shame Indigenous peoples for hunting under the guise of “fighting for the animals.” But this ignores colonialism’s legacy and the fact that traditional Indigenous hunting practices are, actually, good for the planet.

And that’s just one example. You can learn more about how climate activism intersects with anti-Indigeneity by getting involved with Indigenous Climate Action and watching the 2016 documentary Angry Inuk.

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A post shared by Indigenous Climate Action (@indigenousclimateaction)

In short, the sustainable habits you incorporate on an individual level work best when they’re based on, and play out according to, a nuanced understanding of the problems.

Don’t sacrifice; trade

Saving the world means changing the world — and changing the world means your life will have to change. For many people, that’s hard to come to terms with; we’re comfortable with our disposables and same-day shipping. (And, it’s fine to be comfortable with them! They’re super convenient! It’s normal to be reluctant to give them up!)

Plus, you only have so many hours in a day; so if you only have time to do one thing for the planet, it’s probably more impactful to go to a protest than to keep a garden.

It’s hard to incorporate changes that feel like sacrifices into your life. We get it. But political action and individual action need to go hand-in-hand. To save the planet, we need your lifestyle changes and your activism.

What might help is to think of your eco-friendly habits less as a sacrifice and more as trade-off. Give your lower power bill; get a shorter workweek. Give your disposables; get cleaner air and, as a result, a slightly longer life expectancy.

Two people shake hands and say "deal."

Your individual actions shouldn’t distract from the larger cause; they should motivate it. Your life will change a little but, we promise, it will improve in the long run.

Namely, because you’ll have a planet to live on.

If you’re looking for ways to incorporate sustainability into your lifestyle, head to the Humber Sustainability website to learn how you can participate in their Climate Day of Action on Saturday, Sept. 25.

Climate activism and Indigenous sovereignty go hand-in-hand. Here’s how you can support the Land Back movement.

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