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Only Collectivism Can Save the Climate

What can each of us do in our daily lives to reduce environmental harm? For many years now, the environmental movement has dedicated itself to providing answers to this question: recycle, drive less, plant a tree, and the list continues. Greenpeace has even put together the handy guide “How to Save the Climate”, which provides a large range of actions one can take to make your contribution. If everyone just did their own part, we could save the planet. Right? Not quite.

While recycling and planting trees are definitely activities we should encourage, they will not save the planet. All of these actions are ways for an individual to reduce the harm he or she causes to the environment – the problem, however, is that individuals are not killing the planet, humanity is killing the planet. Thus, individual actions – especially those based in consumerism, like buying a hybrid car or switching to CFLs – cannot hope to solve a collective problem. This does not mean people should abandon these personal contributions, but rather that people must begin to understand the need for taking bigger steps that only collective action can achieve.

What kind of actions are these? They are the kind that goes beyond the choices people make within the existing consumer system to create new, alternative options for people to choose. Instead of buying a personal hybrid car – which any individual with enough money can do – organize a carpool in your workplace or community. Better yet, organize a movement to compel your local government to make clean, efficient, and reliable public transportation available in your area – as an alternative to personal cars, hybrid or not. As another example, don’t stop with buying solar panels to provide renewable energy for your own house, start a petition demanding that government adopt an energy policy that will transform our energy system to generate renewable energy for the entire country.

All of these actions fall outside of consumerism and individualism. They can seem large and intimidating, beyond what we can do ourselves – which is precisely why we need to change our mindset from “what can I do” to “what can we do”. It is time Americans relearned how to be engaged citizens in their representative democracy, rather than savvy and “eco-friendly” consumers in their green-washed, consumption-driven market system. Reclaiming and utilizing collective action in this way will create a real chance for us to “save the climate”.


This post inspired by Michael Maniates’ article: “Individualization: plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?”

Maniates, 2001. “Individualization: plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?” Global Environmental Politics 1 (3):31-52.

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