Why ‘What Can I Do?’ Is the Wrong Question About Climate
“What can I do?” is the most frequently-asked question that 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben hears when he talks about climate change. But the framing of the question is a mistake, he writes in a post on EcoWatch.
“The problem is the word ‘I,’” McKibben states. “By ourselves, there’s not much we can do. Yes, my roof is covered with solar panels and I drive a plug-in car that draws its power from those panels, and yes our hot water is heated by the sun, and yes we eat low on the food chain and close to home. I’m glad we do all those things, and I think everyone should do them, and I no longer try to fool myself that they will solve climate change.”
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The most common phrase McKibben hears from scientists these days is “faster than anticipated.” That means “the science has changed, and with it our understanding of the necessary politics and economics of survival,” he notes. “Against all that, one’s Prius is a gesture. A lovely gesture and one that everyone should emulate, but a gesture. Ditto riding the bike or eating vegan or whatever one’s particular point of pride.”
The right question is “what can we do to make a difference?” he concludes. “If individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry. Movements are what can put a price on carbon, force politicians to keep fossil fuel in the ground, demand subsidies so that solar panels go up on almost every roof, not just yours.”
McKibben points to all the essential work movements can do that is beyond the scope of individual action, however accustomed North Americans may be to thinking of themselves in individual terms. “Job one is to organize, and jobs two and three,” he writes. “And if you have some time left over after that, then by all means make sure your lightbulbs are all LEDs and your kale comes from close to home.”