You wake up in the morning and switch on your light. With that flick of your index finger, you are complicit. You are causing the seas to rise, likely leading to the displacement of between 32 and 80 million people. You are responsible for the future death of all coral reefs, ridding over 500 million people of their livelihoods. You are responsible for increased water scarcity, affecting over 350 million people.
Is this fair? No. But that is what politicians, corporations and people in power are saying these days: handing you, the individual, the burden of ending the climate crisis and the guilt associated with not being able to.
Over the past several months, I have witnessed many examples of our community leaders — both at the University of Michigan and city level — shirking the responsibility to act on the current climate crisis and instead calling for increased individual action and behavioral change.
At the Ann Arbor City Council meeting last April, City Councilwoman Anne Banister, D-Ward 1, voted against dedicating $880,000 to address climate change at the city level, stating how “we can demand that the city do a bunch of stuff but I would again urge that people look at their own choices.” Similarly, during a public town hall about the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) that same month, University President Mark Schlissel explained that “we really do as individuals share not just in the need to have a successful outcome, but in actually driving that success.”
At a carbon neutrality town hall in September, Stephen Forrest, co-chair of PCCN, stated that “this isn’t just the responsibility of the University administration. It’s the responsibility of all of us, turning off lights, unplugging our chargers and things like that. These things are actually really meaningful if you add them up.” At a similar panel discussion on the intersection of businesses and carbon neutrality in December, Forrest told the audience he walks four miles round-trip to work every day in an effort to reduce his own carbon footprint. Forrest said that “if even a small number of individuals adjusted their everyday activities to reduce their carbon footprint, society could potentially begin to take steps toward carbon neutrality.”
These recommendations from our leaders illustrate two possibilities: They are either knowingly parroting fossil fuel industry talking points or are showing their complete lack of understanding of the way in which systems shape individual action. Similarly to how the fossil fuel industry profits from our current reliance on fossil fuels, corporations, institutions and the powerful reap the benefits of our current systems — both economic and political — that prioritize their profit over our planet, and are the causes of the current climate crisis.
In other words, climate change is a symptom of a far-too-long overlooked side effect of our current economic and political systems that protect money and power at the expense of all else. When those with wealth and power have something to lose from correctly addressing the causes of the climate crisis, it is easier for them to double down on greenwashing and calls for individual behavior change. We are instructed to unplug our chargers and turn our lights off while corporations go unchecked, profiting from the destruction of our ecosystems. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 20 of those corporations are responsible for a whopping 35 percent of all global emissions.
As Thoreau (bleh, I know) states in his essay “Civil Disobedience”: “I quarrel not with far-off foes, but those who, near at home, cooperate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless.” To be clear, I quarrel with both the far-off foes and those near at home, with names like Banister, Schlissel and Forrest. Forrest, for example, makes $344,000 annually and can afford to live close enough to walk to work, while living in a city with such an extreme lack of housing and housing affordability that graduate student employees, who are attempting to bargain over more affordable housing and climate action, are told they should live in other cities and commute to. Forrest is by no means the villain of this story, but his actions and words are emblematic of a larger issue: It is leaders like him — those who have benefitted from current systems of power and are therefore reluctant to change them — that stand in our way and in the way of a livable planet.
When we find ourselves living in a society that has been built from the ground up on human exploitation, resource extraction, fossil fuel use and power accumulation, the individual will always be complicit, rendering individual action by itself futile. I am not telling you to stop reducing meat consumption, or stop getting on busses, or stop turning off lights and unplugging chargers. And I’m not saying that you don’t bear some of the responsibility for causing the climate crisis and carry some of the burdens of solving it. What I’m saying is that in order to correctly address this crisis, today’s systems of exploitation and inequality must be toppled. Only collective action can do just that.
Julian Hansen is a senior International Studies major and member of the Climate Action Movement at the University of Michigan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.