What is Your Part? Reflections on “Action” in a Time of Crisis

 By Susannah Crockford

As part of my research on climate change, I recently interviewed a retired civil engineer who worked for decades in the oil and gas industry. From inside his solar powered home, heated by wood-pellet burning stoves, he said that, though there is no single solution to the current crisis, if everyone did their bit, the world would be a much better place.

But what is your part? Facing challenges as great as the greenhouse effect, as deep as mass extinction, as overwhelming as rising seas undermines any simple notion of individual agency. The problems began centuries ago. Effective action should have been taken decades ago. We are now likely locked in to centuries of increasing temperature, and irreversible tipping points have potentially already been set in motion. So what do we do now?

The engineer’s answer was that demand must be reduced. And that happens with individual action: people needed to stop using the resources that generate carbon emissions. Moreover, individual changes make you feel like you are doing something. You are part of the solution.

This easily moves into a sin-and-virtue dynamic, where people compare carbon footprints and condemn those who are not taking the reduction-steps they are. But even if we avoid that, we’re beset by questions:

If demand always prompts supply, can demand for fossil fuels be reduced without limiting economic growth? Sustainable development or “green growth” is the popular answer. Replace fossil fuels with renewables and supplement with carbon capture. Economic growth and prosperity can continue using renewables and far less fossil fuels. But carbon capture technology does not yet exist at the necessary scale, and the deployment of renewable fuels remains slow. In the meantime, the continued use of fossil fuels has the potential to increase the average global temperature beyond what are considered safe limits. This leads some environmental activists to question whether human society can continue with current levels of economic growth.

The degrowth argument says it cannot. Anthropologist Jason Hickel argues that we can provide for the basic needs of most people without generating high levels of wealth—and accompanying high levels of fossil fuel use–for a few. Humans can thrive without current levels of economic growth, but ecosystems will not if GDP is continually increased.

The deep adaptation argument goes even further. Professor of Sustainability Leadership Jem Bendell argues that based on climate trends, near term social collapse is inevitable, and we must take steps now to prepare.

How does each of us figure out the best steps to take? Arguably, the engineer would have done more good to limit climate change if he had never worked in the oil and gas industry instead of putting solar panels on his home. But maybe, if he hadn’t done his job, someone else would have. The industry would continue regardless of which individuals worked in it.

And how effective is individual action? Are the wealthy obligated to take more individual action as they contribute most to carbon emissions?

Ecophilosopher Rupert Read maintains that, while setting an individual example is helpful, political action is more important. It is more effective to support green parties electorally and financially—to get legislation and policies to limit climate change–than it is to quit flying or eating meat. Yet the electoral success of green parties has been disappointing. So new climate justice movements advocate direct action. Youth movements, such as Zero Hour, the Sunrise Movement, and the schools strikes initiated by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, carry the moral weight of children castigating their elders for the mess they are leaving behind.

This leads to more questions: Marches, protests, and strikes have been done before. Do the people in power even notice? If an act has no efficacy, is it truly an action?

This brings some back to supply and demand: stop new pipelines and exploration, remove funding from fossil fuel companies, and remove social support for fossil fuels.

The divestment movement aims to do just this. Bill McKibben’s 350.org petitions local governments, universities, and pension funds to remove their investments from fossil fuels, and it claims some success. As does Climate First. I interviewed the group’s founder, Ted Conway, who said he convinced Morgan Stanley to significantly reduce the bank’s investments in fossil fuels. Now, Climate First protests weekly outside Wells Fargo banks in the United States to persuade it to do the same.

For some, this is too little, too slow. After all, 350.org was named after the 350 ppm (parts per million) ceiling on atmospheric carbon dioxide–and the current level is already 408.2 ppm. So perhaps the answer is civil disobedience, like the 2016-2017 camps at Standing Rock Sioux reservation blocking the construction of an oil pipeline out of the North Dakota tar sands. It was an Indigenous resistance movement against the continuation of resource exploitation by settler colonialism. Extinction Rebellion was launched in 2018 in the UK and has spread to thirty-five other countries. Modelling themselves on suffragist and civil rights movements, they are willing to be arrested as they block bridges, roads, and Parliament Square in London to demand that governments declare a climate emergency and take action accordingly.

Will they be effective? What action would be? Despair seems too easy, hope somewhat foolish. We want humanity to flourish. But is that possible given that we need the planet to flourish, and our current ideas of flourishing wreck the planet?


Susannah Crockford is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University in Belgium. As part of the European Research Council funded NARMESH project, she is currently investigating the role of narrative in conceptualisations of the interconnection of humans, non-humans, and climate. She earned her PhD in anthropology in July 2017 from the London School of Economics, and previously completed an MA in religious studies at the University of Amsterdam and an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

This Counterpoint blog post may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge  on 09 Jan 2019.”

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