Why Even the Smallest Personal Actions Make a Difference in the Climate Fight

Bicycle commuters crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Bicycle commuters crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

More than 30 years ago, an argument with a friend made me question my stance on the power of individual actions. We were discussing climate change, an issue that was just getting the public’s attention. My friend, an organic farmer, argued that not only can the consistent actions of one person influence others, but also that small actions by an increasing number of individuals can add up to a critical mass that leads to change from the ground up, which in turn becomes a social movement.

Before she was done talking I was shaking my head.

“No way,” I said. “Recycling and changing light bulbs isn’t enough, we need big changes. We need politicians to change laws and corporations to become environmental.”

Though neither of us budged in our perspectives, that argument has stayed with me, and over time I began to see the wisdom of my friend’s perspective.

When I crunch the numbers, I face a blunt reminder that the impacts of a single person’s habits are minuscule with respect to a planetary-scale issue like climate change. To reverse climate change, humankind must stop adding carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and then remove 1,442 gigatons from the air by 2050, according to the 2017 book Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken.

My eyes blur with these terms and numbers, but “giga” refers to 1 billion, so a gigaton is 1 billion tons. Humans are currently adding roughly 36 gigatons of CO2 annually to the atmosphere. To put these colossal numbers into perspective, let’s look at the effects of individual actions in terms of tons of CO2 saved per year. The four most CO2-saving actions for people living in the United States are to have one fewer child, live car-free, avoid airplane travel, and eat a plant-based diet. For example, a single person living car-free in the United States saves more than three tons of CO2 per year, and eating a plant-based diet saves a bit more than one ton. Every American currently emits roughly 18 tons of CO2 on average per year. In order to reach safe climate goals by 2050, the U.S. per capita emissions need to drop to less than 2.5 tons of CO2 per year.

Personal changes are also important because they shift our collective mindset.

Without question, the practicalities of reversing these trends are overwhelming. At the same time, cumulatively, small steps add up. Project Drawdown takes a sum-total-of-small-gains approach as it outlines 100 solutions to our climate predicament. Hawken and his colleagues have made careful calculations for lowering CO2 emissions, one sector of human society at a time. For example, replacing, avoiding leaks of, and safely destroying chemical refrigerants found in all refrigerators, supermarket cases, and air conditioners add up to the number one societal level change that we can make to reduce greenhouse gases. Hydrofluorocarbons used for cooling have a capacity to warm the atmosphere at rates that are 9,000 times greater than CO2. Increasing onshore wind turbines to account for 22% of our total energy use is the number two most effective societal change toward lowering CO2 emissions. In these ways, we take digestible bites out of the climate pie to achieve our goal.

At the same time, personal changes are also important because they shift our collective mindset. In the late 1990s, I traveled to India. While there, I visited a co-housing community in Kerala, and over dinner, one of the residents told us a story about viral social change called The Hundredth Monkey. The version he told, which I have heard since, has taken on the form of a myth and exaggerates the real findings, and is based on a book of that name by Ken Keyes Jr. In the myth, a young female Japanese monkey on an island learned to wash a sweet potato in a stream to remove the dirt. She then taught the trick to her mother and slowly the practice spread. In subsequent years, all the monkeys in the troop adopted the practice. But when the hundredth monkey started washing its potatoes, the scientists noticed all the monkeys on the mainland and on neighboring islands were also washing their sweet potatoes. A critical mass had been reached, which led to a kind of behavioral convergence. There is real research behind the hundredth monkey phenomenon, but the results are less spectacular. It neither confirms nor denies that crossing a threshold led to the adoption of the practice everywhere. It does observe that when mothers adopt a practice and teach it to their children, that practice can become fixed in the next generation. Older monkeys — stuck in their ways — stay with what they’ve always done, eating food with dirt on it.

My point is that we have to start somewhere, and changing behaviors one person at a time can and does influence social change. It’s important to make big changes, even if it’s just one thing. Choose a habit that requires passion to adopt. Personally, my life changed when I began biking to work in 2005. Not only did it keep me in shape; I’d like to think that over the years I have influenced a few people to bike commute themselves. But more than that, the days that I bike, I feel empowered.

I am inspired by the stories of people who make a life change and do something extraordinary. Take Bren Smith of Bramford, Connecticut, who had once been an industrial fisherman, but now runs Greenwave, a nongovernmental organization that promotes ocean farming of kelp and shellfish. Smith’s model addresses climate change and our need to raise food sustainably. Kelp is fast-growing and very efficient at sequestering CO2 from the water. As CO2 rises in the atmosphere and is absorbed by the water, the oceans become more acidic, and acidic water degrades the little shells of plankton at the base of the marine food chain. But research shows that kelp can lower acidity locally in the ocean. By some estimates, if farmers covered as much as 9% of the ocean in kelp farms, we would draw enough carbon from the water to counter climate change. Smith’s 3D scaffolds of kelp, clams, oysters, and mussels help restore ecosystems and take the pressure off fish stocks while creating green jobs. Greenwave offers an ocean farmer training program to teach others to adopt the system. Of course, most people may start by making smaller personal changes.

In his 2008 essay “Why Bother?” writer and food activist Michael Pollan advocates growing a garden as a first step to empowering us, changing mindsets, and igniting us toward a different (greener) way of living. The bigger point is less about how one personal change will reverse the juggernaut of climate change. It’s more about how each example of someone taking steps for a cause can add up to viral social change. It happened with the civil rights movement, starting with a spark when Rosa Parks defiantly refused to give up her seat in the front of a bus on December 1, 1955. The truth is that Parks was not the first African American — even that year — to defy racist bus laws. Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on March 2, 1955, and 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith did the same thing later on October 21, 1955. By the time Parks acted, some critical mass of commitment to change had been made throughout the United States, so the conditions were right for that spark to light a fire.

Personal changes, innovation, and new laws are all required to save our planet. But most politicians — who control big funding that fuels innovation — are followers, not leaders. As Pollan pointed out, “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do.”

And so, I come full circle to rethink a conversation I had in the 1980s. A conversation with a friend changed me, though the sad irony is how long it took. I recognize that my thinking in 2020 is idealistic, that humans as a collective are not fixing the problem of climate change and instead are fully headed in the wrong direction, but I remain optimistic. I now believe that social change can begin within each of us with one big personal commitment. With respect to the climate, we can each decide to grow a garden, bike to work, eat mostly plants, protest, or adopt some other meaningful action that can in turn influence the next person.

Science writer, essayist, fiction writer. Co-editor of Journeys: A Poet’s Diary, by A.K. Ramanujan (Penguin Random House, 2019)

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