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Little Steps

Why I’m Changing My Consumption—Even Though Climate Policy Is More Important Than Personal Choice

The point of biking or going vegan isn’t the impact of a single person’s choice. It’s about throwing everything we’ve got at a problem that feels overwhelming.

A person bikes in a bike lane.
Paul Zinken/picture alliance/Getty Images
A bike lane in Berlin

I’ve been making some lifestyle changes this past year. First I went vegan. I’d been vegetarian for a decade and a half, but I’ve always loved cheese so much that taking that next step seemed impossible. When I decided to give it a real try last winter, several friends and family members—knowing my passion for dairy—scoffed that I, of all people, could ever stick to a vegan diet. But it turned out to be a perfectly easy transition.

Next I ditched my car for a bike. This one I needed some help with, since I’ve got a toddler and we live in a pretty hilly city. So I invested in an e-bike (there are a bunch out there with low centers of gravity that make them safer for carrying kids), and now we go everywhere we need to on two wheels. I used to hate taking our son to and from daycare—it’s about five miles from home, so getting there meant highways, traffic, and more often than not a crying baby. Now he spends the ride chortling with delight at the sights and sounds that wash over him as we ride through town together.

Most recently we got rooftop solar. These days, when I feel an urge to check Twitter, I redirect the impulse to an app showing how much energy our installation is producing in real time. This new phone-based compulsion may be just as dumb and addictive, but at least it adds a touch of brightness to my day (which Twitter, needless to say, does not). Next up is switching our home to a heat-pump system—which will be a bigger challenge, since the financial incentives don’t quite balance out the same way. But we’re doing our research and beginning the process of saving up.

If you’re rolling your eyes at my list of personal lifestyle changes, I don’t blame you: They are exactly the kinds of individual consumer choices that, for many years, I didn’t put much stock in. As a state legislator, I fought to pass new renewable energy programs, and as an activist and organizer, I participated in campaigns to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure in my community. And that political activity felt like enough. Indeed, any climate “action” outside of politics seemed like a distraction. Addressing the climate crisis requires sweeping policy changes to restructure our economy, not atomized lifestyle decisions. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in a Guardian column last year, “Individual acts of thrift and abstinence won’t get us the huge distance we need to go in this decade. We need to exit the age of fossil fuels, reinvent our energy landscape, rethink how we do almost everything.… The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good.”

This warning takes on added significance when you consider the ways the fossil fuel industry has systematically used narratives about personal consumption to redirect blame for climate change away from oil and gas companies and onto everyday consumers. For example, it’s now common knowledge that British Petroleum coined the term “carbon footprint” in 2004 in order to promote the idea that individuals like you and me—rather than fossil fuel majors like BP—are responsible for the climate crisis.

Needless to say, that’s bullshit. But in rejecting that premise earlier in my life, I did something of an overcorrection. If Big Oil wanted me to blame myself instead of the fossil fuel industry, and our neoliberal order wanted me to focus on my role as a consumer rather than as a citizen, then the right response, I decided, was not to worry about lifestyle choices at all.

I now think that was a mistake. There’s no reason that individual lifestyle choices and collective action need to be mutually exclusive, or even slightly conflicting. Indeed, in my own life I’ve realized that seeing friends, neighbors, and strangers make sustainable life choices often helps me find some of the hope I need to keep engaging in climate fights.

Watching solar panels spring up on a roof I pass every day, or waving hello to a fellow bike commuter, can be a lovely—and sometimes necessary—day-to-day reminder that there are people in every part of my community who care about this crisis (and who could be recruited to engage more actively in the climate movement, if they haven’t yet taken that step). The possibility that my own solar installation or bike use or vegan dish at a friend’s potluck could lend this same boost to others is, I think, worth real consideration.

Ezra Klein framed this idea quite beautifully last year when he wrote: “Don’t think about consumption—even your consumption—as individual. Think of yourself as a node for social, political, and moral contagion. I don’t think my personal decision to not eat meat is that important.… But I caught my veganism from my wife. Other people have caught veganism or vegetarianism from me. And it’s in that way that individual attitudes ladder up to social attitudes, and then to social and political change.”

If that’s correct, then living our climate politics—in the food we eat or the ways we get around or the homes we try to build for our families—isn’t just about “being good,” as Solnit put it. It’s also about helping the people around us see these choices (and perhaps the values that inform them) as available, and maybe even desirable, for their lives too.

This is a hopeful week for humanity, with the seemingly miraculous resuscitation of a compromised but still historic Democratic climate agenda Wednesday evening. But it wasn’t a miracle that produced the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022; it was activists ratcheting up the pressure on the outside, advocates relentlessly pushing for a deal on the inside, and our politicians finally displaying some tactical skill. Even more, this shift in our legislative fortunes was the result of something larger—the culmination of millions and millions of acts by millions and millions of people. As the climate movement’s leading wise man Bill McKibben wrote the night the deal was announced, “We fight to change the zeitgeist, people’s sense of what is normal and natural and obvious. Yes, we fight to block this pipeline or divest that pension fund, and each of those is important: but they add up to something more, a slowly moving weight that eventually shifts from one side to the other.”

As always, McKibben is right on. And I think the list of small-on-their-own-but-zeitgeist-shifting-in-the-aggregate steps includes lifestyle choices too. They don’t belong at the top of the list; if I had to choose between encouraging a friend to eat less meat or inviting them to a local climate activist group’s weekly meeting, I’m going to choose the meeting every time. But here’s the thing: We don’t really need to choose. It all contributes to changing people’s sense of what is normal and natural and obvious. And if, as Klein argues, the most critical effect of individual action is its contagiousness, then it’s actually really important that we discuss our own climate-motivated lifestyle changes with the people in our lives—that we talk about how badass our new e-bike is, or how satisfying tracking our house’s electricity production feels, or how yummy the vegan cheese they make nowadays can be, in the same way that we rant about how fossil fuel CEOs need to be dragged to the Hague and tried for crimes against humanity.

Of course, I’m super late to all of this, myself. I was eating animal products last January and driving gratuitously in May. So many people made sustainable commitments so much faster than I did. But that’s kind of the point, for anyone reading this who’s been thinking about making a lifestyle change but hasn’t yet: If we didn’t start something yesterday, there’s no better time to start than today. That goes for both collective action and for living our climate values in our personal lives too.

Because, even with the good news out of D.C. last week, it’s clear by now that nobody’s going to save us from climate disaster. Whatever those of us who care about a livable planet have the capacity to do, we need to do it; whatever arena of our lives we can take action in, we need to take it. “All of the above” was a disastrous energy policy, but it’s the right approach to climate action. Because we are all we’ve got.