Does Personal Change Really Make a Difference?

By Ingrid Steinberg   May 1, 2020

“If people begin the effort to take back into their own power a significant portion of their economic responsibility, then their inevitable first discover is that the ‘environmental crisis’ is no such thing: it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, as citizens. We have an ‘environmental crisis’ because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the God-given, world.”

Wendell Berry, The Total Economy (essay) 2000

It is sometimes said that personal and local change in response to the climate crisis is pointless given the speed with which the crisis is bearing down on us. I have occasionally found myself in despairing agreement. What is the point of my small personal acts of resistance, when all around me the systems and habits of our culture carry on full-tilt? And yet, refusing to partake in some of the habits that destroy the earth has given me an incredible sense of wholeness and has spurred a new chapter of climate and environmental activism in my life. I think back fondly to the way in which during the last several months, prior to being stuck at home, I would take my reusable mug to the coffee shop, and always have reusable eating utensils at hand for the family. I think about the shopping trips to the Santa Monica co-op, when I would fill up my glass bottles with bulk items and get my produce in reusable produce bags. These acts were hardly world-changing, yet they were daily reminders that I had the power to do something.


It is quite clear that individual action alone will not save us. But this does not mean that it has no role to play. Unless we acknowledge the ways in which we are personally implicated in the climate crisis, we will not have the moral authority to press our neighbors, towns, and countries to change. Greta Thunberg caught the eye of the world when she engaged in a political protest, a school strike. But it matters that she is a vegan and that she refuses to fly: without such personal forms of resistance, she would not have had the authenticity to touch the hearts and consciences of people across the globe.


There is another, related, reason why individual action matters. Even undemocratic governments are responsive to the cultures that they oversee. Environmental activist and founder of Bill McKibben has spoken of an urgent need to change the “zeitgeist.” We need to change attitudes and behaviors on the ground. Cultural change begins when citizens and local communities start to question and reject the status quo. When individuals change their habits, they influence the behaviors of their neighbors, friends, and families. The likelihood that you will have solar panels on your roof, for example, is significantly higher if your neighbors have solar panels on their roof. Changes in the culture start with changes in communities.


It sometimes seems that we have little choice about the ways in which we live our lives. Yes, we could drive a little less, and for some of us, switching to an electric car is feasible. But giving up a car altogether or foregoing airplane travel can seem like a pipe dream. It would be suicide to bike the LA freeways or major arteries, and refusing to fly might cost you your job, or prevent you from spending time with loved ones who live very far away.


Wendell Berry — writer, environmentalist, and Kentucky farmer — pushes back. He acknowledges that there are some habits that are so built into our way of life and the global systems that govern us, that it is hard, maybe impossible, to reject them. He himself bemoans the fact that he cannot get by on his farm without a car. However, he insists that we have overestimated the number of personal habits that are impossible to change. He believes that we are capable of making major changes in our lives, while still living rich and fulfilling lives. And he insists that if we really want to, we can resist pressures to adopt new ways of living that are destructive to our environments.


We see the role of personal and community action playing out on a faster timeline in the context of the pandemic response. Without government to lead and fund a lockdown, we would be hard-pressed to achieve the levels of isolation required to avoid overwhelming our health system and to limit the number of deaths. Yet the government does not act in isolation, and it is deeply influenced by our attitudes. People were already starting to self-isolate before Mayor Garcetti and Governor Newsom introduced the lockdown. And without each and every one of our individual commitments to stay home, the virus would be spreading faster, regardless of the official rules.


Similarly, our attitudes and actions as individuals and neighbors, and as a community, as well as our votes (with both our dollars and our ballots), will be essential to get governments to move more quickly to address the climate crisis, and to get banks and corporations to change their ways.


Resilient Palisades exists in part because Wendell Berry has written so convincingly about the importance of place and of local community in addressing the environmental crisis. He insists that if you want to change the world, you had better begin where you are – with the land that you inhabit and with the people who surround you physically. Reading Berry for the first time a little over a year ago was for me a life-changing experience. I highly recommend this collection of his essays as a good place to start.


We are calling on Palisadians to begin a conversation about our community: about the land we live on, about our place on it, and about our responsibilities in a warming world. We invite you to share your stories, your dreams, and your ideals about how we can become an even better, closer, and more ecologically sound community.

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