A few months ago, a friend and I were having a particularly intense conversation about individuals’ responsibilities for climate change. He was morbidly questioning how he could reconcile the fact that his very existence inescapably causes emissions with his value for not harming others or the environment. He was getting at a point that I have also felt at times in my life: if we have reasonable belief that we will personally cause more emissions than is sustainable over the course of our lives, then isn’t it our responsibility to do every little thing possible to minimize those emissions? This line of reasoning goes downhill fast, and it’s easy to get sucked in.
This conversation I had with my friend did involve a lot of discussion about how 100 companies are causing 71% of emissions (which is a bit of a misleading statistic — those companies are only emitting because we as consumers have created sufficient demand for it, and so it’s not by any means an airtight argument for getting out of individual responsibility). Externalizing the blame to these 100 companies — or the system that created them — can be a great logical way to temporarily get out of the line of reasoning my friend was going down. In general, though, I just cannot find it in myself to not do something, so the challenge becomes deciding what exactly to do.
I spent a long time trying to minimize my individual contribution to climate change — picking the paper bags at the grocery store, but then realizing that they actually are more energy-intensive to produce and switching to plastic bags, which I would’ve needed for trash anyway. Trying to figure out the optimal fuel-efficient speed to drive on the highway. Trying to go vegan cold-turkey, failing miserably, and then eating meat for a year before trying again to stop. All those actions are small in the scheme of how much time they take spread over months and years, but they add up, and trying to do them all inevitably ends in burnout.
Burnout is a real threat in any line of work, and especially so when it feels like the consequences of not doing exceptional work are potentially catastrophic.
We — climate activists, young people, anyone living in this world — need to be kind to ourselves, even when it feels like the world is on fire and it must be at least a little bit our fault.
I’ve found a helpful framework for avoiding that burnout while still taking consistent action. Right now, I’m almost vegan — but I eat fish and eggs because they’re relatively low emissions and relatively difficult for me to cut out. If my grandma serves me ice cream I will eat it, no hesitation. I spend some energy on political climate action (phonebanking; donating; working with Sunrise Movement). However, I do not stress about always bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. I feel fine getting takeout in disposable containers and throwing it all away. I take long hot showers whenever I need them, and don’t feel bad about all the energy that went to heating the water.
How did I get to this seemingly random line between things that I am Okay and Not Okay with doing? I’ve allocated a personal energy budget (i.e. emotional energy; not solar energy) to my individual climate actions, and when it’s gone, that’s it. No more intentional climate actions. Hard stop.
I’ll admit, this framework does seem like I’ve drawn an arbitrary line between climate actions — and to a certain extent I have, in the sense that if everyone were to create their own personal climate energy budgets, we would hardly come to the same conclusions about what to continue with and what to stop. The actions I spend my budget on are just as personalized as everyone else’s would be.
However, that doesn’t mean my choices are arbitrary. My personal budget is based on picking the top two or three things I can actively do that provide a combination of low energy cost to myself and high climate impact. For instance, it would be relatively low cost for me to be better at recycling, but it would also be low impact, so it’s not worth spending my budget on. Similarly, it would be relatively high impact for me to never fly again, but it would also come with a high cost, so I don’t stress about that, either. I’ve looked for the actions closest to that low-cost high-impact sweet spot, and near-veganism and political action are what I’ve found.
Over the past 50 years, countless climate bills have been proposed and failed. There’s no knowledge gap — the research has been done and we know what bills we should be passing to address climate change. It’s just been a problem of implementation.
That’s why I believe working through politics is the most effective way I personally can fight for the climate: little has been done, but we know exactly what we need to do. It’s an area ripe with opportunity.
Couple that with the fact that most movements with 3.5% or more of a country’s population succeed, and I’m sold. I want to be part of that 3.5%.
You may look at my choice to be almost vegan and channel my energy into politics and decide that neither of those are for you. Your high-impact low-cost sweet spot might contain two or three totally different actions, and the actions in that sweet spot may very well change over time. No matter what they are, though, I’d be willing to bet that they don’t perfectly align with what you’re doing right now. I encourage you to spend a little time deciding where what you’re doing right now falls, and see where that leads you. Maybe you’ll find something new that excites you — and maybe you’ll fight some climate action burnout while you’re at it.