The Importance of Individual Conservation

Over the weekend, I came across a popular tweet. It disappointed me, but also got me thinking about the importance of individual change in tackling the complex problem of climate change.

It reads, “When are we gonna stop pretending that it’s regular people’s fault the planet’s dying because they won’t go vegan or take 5 minute showers and start actually blaming corporations that produce astronomical pollution and dump toxic waste directly into the mouths of great whales?”

I recognize that the corporation’s pursuit for cost minimization necessarily ruins the biosphere. Corporations contribute enormously to greenhouse gas emissions and thereby exacerbate the process of atmospheric warming. The seemingly endless process of extracting and wasting must eventually switch to a circular production system, as the earth can only give so much of itself to humans, and a large portion of the destruction caused has already proven irreversible. The tweet frustrated me, however, because it appears to minimize the significance of personal lifestyle changes in mitigating the causes of climate change. Are people not capable of reducing their own carbon footprints while also fighting to hold corporations accountable for environmental injustice? These two approaches to climate change are not mutually exclusive. In fact, avoiding either option would prove hypocritical and ultimately ineffective.

After reading about the lack of animal welfare regulations in the factory farming industry, as well as the high percentage of greenhouse gases emitted by the production of meat, I became vegetarian during my sophomore year of high school. The collective impact of dietary shifts, either by reducing red meat consumption through the practice of “reductionarianism” or by cutting meat out of one’s consumption patterns entirely, could reduce human-induced greenhouse gas emissions by over 20 percent. Adopting a more environmentally friendly diet also leads to biodiversity conservation and reduced reliance on the water-intensive livestock industry. Additionally, through a switch to grass-fed livestock, grain used in meat production could be directed to populations suffering from hunger.

Despite the many benefits of cutting back on a meat-based diet, vegetarianism is not the only solution and is certainly not a perfect one. Making such changes in one’s daily habits requires patience, commitment, and is admittedly difficult for those with other dietary restrictions or a limited budget. Countless other ways of reducing one’s carbon footprint still exist, which can be incorporated into long-term lifestyle changes. Basically, doing something is better than doing nothing, and we cannot afford to ignore the effectiveness of individual action.

There are simple actions that can result in substantial decreases in luxury emissions: avoid travel by car when possible, turn on the heat only when necessary, consume less palm oil (which is produced as a result of the destruction of carbon-rich forests), and switch to the use of more energy-efficient appliances. Most importantly, we should educate ourselves regarding the (un)sustainable practices of corporations, support businesses that do not externalize costs by damaging the environment, and generally aim to become more aware of our own contributions to climate change.

In college, making such lifestyle changes can seem impossible, especially when dependent on dining hall food for everyday meals and the Boston College administration’s decisions regarding heat and electricity usage. In spite of our apparent inability to control our current consumption habits, we can make small decisions that, together, can cut total university emissions significantly. So yes, we can and should try to take less time in the shower and to turn off the faucet when we brush our teeth. We should also take the extra 30 seconds to separate our food scraps into the appropriate recycling, compost, and landfill bins, and to make better meal choices in the dining halls. Although the effects of these small steps appear negligible, the collective reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that results from gradually using fewer resources each day and making more conscientious choices cannot be understated.

At the same time, students should acknowledge the pressing issue of climate change and thus work toward a refusal to live by the “ignorance is bliss” motto. We should encourage local leaders to take action by making political statements and advocate for better energy efficiency, alongside transparency from both politicians and those responsible for the prevalence of harmful business practices. We can bring about the institutional change needed to make sustainable lifestyles more affordable and commonplace. Above all, we should take the time to research the causes of climate change and to fight against this threat to the environment we live in by making progress towards lowering emissions in any way possible. The advantages of making small, personal changes should not be disregarded as part of the solution to climate change.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor