Opinion: An Individual’s Role in the Environmental Crisis

It’s scary being an individual in the environmental crisis. I hear facts about oil spills, species extinction, and 3° warming limits that weren’t part of the bedtime stories my parents told me about friendship and farm animal noises.

One of the worst parts is knowing that it’s partly my fault. I benefit by living in Canada, one of the world’s 10 top carbon-emitting countries, where we each produced 14.9 tons of carbon (per capita) in 2016.1

However, in these dire times I think we need to re-assess what it means to be an individual in the environmental crisis. Many sustainability messages tell us to buy organic, donate clothes, and use metal straws to reduce our impact on the environment. But this is not the only message they give us. As George Monbiot from The Guardian puts it:

The biggest lie industries give us is that “the first great extermination is a matter of consumer choice.2

In the face of boundless industry, which causes boundless environmental and social destruction, I refuse to accept that the buying even more “green” products is the solution. In fact, western consumerism is a large part of what got us here in the first place. Further, I refuse to accept that the responsibility lies solely in my court to fix the world.

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Photo by Helen Zhang, The Gateway.

On the one hand, it is empowering to think that we can make positive change through our own little actions. Unfortunately, it appears that these little actions won’t be enough to save us, given we have 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.3

It’s time to put the fear and the blame where it belongs. It’s scary to think that if Alberta’s oil sands shut down, many of our parents will lose their jobs. It’s scary to think about what might happen if we stop driving cars. However, it’s not my fault, or yours, that we were born into a world which runs on fossil fuels and where public transit is often pretty bad. I did not choose to damage the earth and I did not choose for my world to end.

There are some cases where individual responsibility is necessary. For example, as a white settler in Canada, I live on stolen land and directly benefit from a continued history of racism and colonialism. I consume fossil fuel products and unethically produced clothing. But I don’t want it this way.

ab oil.jpg

There are some cases where corporate and government responsibility are required. We live in a world where just 20 corporations produce a third of all carbon emissions,4 yet oil companies argue that “they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products.”5 I would like to not use their products, and I’d like to live under a government that provides alternative options.

So let’s imagine an even more hopeful solution than saving the world through buying. Imagine a world where oil and gas workers get a government-funded transition to the green energy sector. Imagine a world that gives Indigenous land back, one where another’s gain is not your loss. Imagine Edmonton with a comprehensive light-rail transit system that goes to every corner of the city and gets you there on time. Start to imagine…and it might not seem so scary after all.

**Cover image by Eva Bee, The Guardian.

Freya H-T

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