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Recycling's for dummies. Change how you vote!

Okay, recycling’s not for dummies. I just said that to get your attention. Keep recycling, and also read on.

My thesis:

We need to move away from promoting small scale behavioural changes and towards promoting large scale ideological shifts in individuals, organisations, and society.

Let me explain:

About two weeks ago (week beginning 13 Jan) ITV London News ran a story in which a reporter(1) tried her best to reduce her personal carbon footprint by eating less meat and dairy, walking her kids to school, cycling to work, etc etc. It was all very noble of her, but here’s the thing, it had endless recommendations of behavioural changes all the budding viewers should consider for themselves, but did not recommend voting behaviour changes. It implicitly suggests that as long as you buy yourself a bike you can vote for as many climate denying UKIP MPs as you like.

This is my issue with this personal responsibility angle that organisations love to peddle. The ITV reporter did not address how she should vote differently in elections; how strong or weak her local MP is on tackling climate change and pollution; and whether there were any upcoming elections where she should elect someone better. Supporting action on climate change is not just about recycling more – it’s about pushing for systemic change, as clichéd as that sounds. It’s about supporting political parties who actually make a difference (side note: and this doesn’t necessarily mean vote Green! I’ll talk about my qualms with the Green Party in later posts).

So if organisations insist on framing climate change as an issue of personal responsibility then they should also include recommendations of how individuals should vote, as well as which smart meters and vegan meal deals to buy.

WWF is sort of getting this. While their homepage(2) urges the viewer to “tell congress to prioritise climate” (good), arguably their most popular tool is the “carbon footprint calculator”(3), which uses your recycling, travel, and dietary habits to give you a traffic light grading based on your overall carbon footprint, and it’s therefore not a surprise that the ITV reporter used this tool in her news segment.

Here’s expert Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, has to say:

“… there is an attempt being made by them [climate deniers] to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions to global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour.”(4)

There you have it! The promotion of personal lifestyle changes as the solution to climate change distracts people from policy reform. Lifestyle changes should be extra; they’re important don’t get me wrong, but they’re not the ultimate solution. I’m reminded of a Grand Designs episode in which a super-rich family designs and builds a totally carbon neutral mansion. Like cool, you’re carbon neutral. But now what? You’re not morally vindicated yet! Now you should fund social housing projects and help make them carbon neutral too, invest in renewable energy companies, etc etc.

In conclusion, personal lifestyle choices are not a substitute for systemic change and policy reform. Think about who you vote for!

Next post: Indigenous people, Donald Trump, and a trillion trees.


(1) I think it was Tanya Mercer, but I can’t remember.

(2) WWF Homepage. 2020. (accessed 26 Jan 2020).

(3) WWF, “How Big is Your Environmental Footprint?”, World Wildlife Fund. 2020. (accessed 26 Jan 2020).

(4) Robin McKie, “Climate Change Deniers New Battlefront Attacked”, The Guardian. 9 Nov 2019. (accessed 28 Jan 2020).

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