Climate Change – The Individual’s Problem? (1/2)

Euan Robb (1st year History and Politics),

Guest Writer

Are we in need of a societal shift?

This was the question I pondered whilst attending the Toxic Air Panel Discussion held by the Warwick Green Party to consider what can be done to alleviate the issue of toxic air pollution. Present were three speakers, each coming from a different background and consequently able to provide differing perspectives. Chris Crean, a Friends of the Earth Campaigner, emphasised the importance of campaigning and building coalitions to ensure that the environmental message comes from a broad front of society; otherwise it may be dismissed by the public as the piddling concern of only a few, niche groups. Dr Nadia Inglis, a campaigner for Choose How You Move, stressed the need for people to switch from driving to walking and cycling, yielding both health and environmental benefits. Finally, Dr Frederik Dahlman, professor at the Warwick Business School, highlighted the necessity of maintaining a global perspective when seeking to limit damage to the environment. This especially means accounting for the economic factors driving the destruction of the environment – supply and demand; provided demand continues, many companies will maintain their pernicious practices, irrespective of the environmental damage.

Despite their different perspectives, the speakers maintained one core theme: the importance of the individual to the environmentalist mission. They argued that, for our current environmental problems to be solved, individuals must change their actions. Chris Crean argued that policy changes would follow only when enough individuals begin to change the way they live. He even provided an example of how individuals are helping to monitor the air quality in their local areas with Clean Air Kits provided by Friends of the Earth. Moreover, Dr Dahlman said that government and business will respond to the conscious choices made by individuals, their legislation and production reflecting individuals’ desires. Meanwhile, Dr Inglis explained that, although local communities need to take action, individuals also have the responsibility to think of the choices and changes they can make.

This prompted me to question the wisdom of this individualist approach when seeking solutions to environmental problems.

I think that this emphasis on the individual is largely the product of the primary political theme of our time, neoliberalism. Arguably, since the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, neoliberalism has been – if not permanently dominant – certainly highly influential in British politics and society. Put (very) simply, neoliberalism is a politico-economic philosophy emphasising the freedom of the individual in society and the market deregulation and privatisation that this entails. The resulting view of society is one comprised of individuals making choices for their own benefit. Neoliberalism holds that individuals know how best to allocate their resources, rather than the state or community, and so their freedom of action should be maximised.

Indeed, it was so powerful that the most successful Labour Prime Minister of modern times, Tony Blair, was forced to adapt his (formerly?) socialist party around the idea in order to attract the electorate – a process possibly reversed by Corbyn, whose rise potentially heralds the end of the neoliberal tradition.

It seems important, however, to question whether this dominant, individualist, neoliberal paradigm must be supplanted in favour of another before we can fully address our environment’s problems.

Why? Because it seems possible that neoliberalism, with its emphasis on the individual, may lie behind our current climate-related travails. This is because when society focuses on the individual – and individuals are motivated only by improving their standards of living or achieving their personal goals – the health of the community may be neglected. Regarding climate change, individuals make decisions, such as driving to work or littering, that perhaps benefit (or do not harm) them as individuals and, in isolation, contribute little to climate change; yet, cumulatively, these individual actions wreak massive environmental damage. This is something which, following the theory, no individual member of society considers.

After all, neoliberalism is arguably little more than a regurgitation of the classical liberalism dominant during the nineteenth century European industrialisation; this very philosophy was hence in place when humans first began to alter the climate on a global scale.

If this suggestion is accurate, the dominant neoliberal societal paradigm may need to be replaced with a societal force emphasising the community and communal living. With people focusing more on the problems affecting the community, they may be more inclined to change their individual actions, if, collectively, these actions harm the community (which climate change does).

One potential option, for example, could be along anarchist lines. A few months ago, I listened to the anarchist Carne Ross at an event hosted by the Warwick Politics Society. At said event, Mr Ross advocated for a society in which there was no hierarchy outside the local community and where those local communities cooperated for the common good – could this be a potential alternative to the contemporary state of society?

After all, at a Green Party event, I was expecting speakers to argue strongly along the lines that capitalism, or another form of oppression, was the root cause of environmental damage; and that society must shift away from the dominant consumerist culture to bring the community into focus. Yet, when I asked a question of the speakers regarding the necessity of shifting paradigm, the strongest answer was from Chris Cream who argued that yes, the paradigm must be relocated, but this must be led by individuals making their own decisions within the current economic system.

Ultimately, I agree with the panel’s broad acceptance of the need for individuals to make changes to their own individual lifestyles; and with it, the acceptance of the neoliberal assumption of society as one comprised of individuals. This is down to the fact that neoliberal logic cuts both ways. Whilst individualism may mean people are concerned only with their immediate welfare, it also means that, if they can be convinced to change their actions, they will persevere with these changes as they will see it as being beneficial to themselves.

Just because I do not think that we need shift our dominant, neoliberal societal paradigm, however, that does not mean we should not question it. For it was that great thinker of the liberal canon, John Stuart Mill, who argued in On Liberty that, even if an established theory represents the whole truth, failing to question it means it will “be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.” It is, therefore, necessary to engage in a dialectic over what we think we know about society and our world, so that our conclusions may be defended with conviction and serve as a basis for future change. For to confront the immense environmental problems of today, a great deal of conviction and change are needed.

Header Image: Electric Car On Green Meadow (CC0 1.0)

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