On Climate Change: Is Individual Action Pointless?

Read time: 4 mins

My friend Anna Atkinson asked recently whether I agree with Canadian author Gwynne Dyer, who in his fabulous book, Climate Wars, suggests that individual actions in the fight against global warming are next to useless - that we will only enjoy success if the world’s governments collaborate on big initiatives.

As it turns out, I agree completely. Nothing you or I do will make a spit of difference. Unless we all see some significant government action, we are helpless to overcome the problem of global warming and doomed to watch changes in our environment - in our lifetime - that NOBODY is going to enjoy.

But it doesn’t end there. Governments act because people want them to act. And people change their wants because they are nudged in one direction or another: by advertising (most often); by their conscience (not all that often); and by their paranoia that they may fall out of step with their neighbours - that they may, by their behavior, demonstrate that they are not aligning with societal norms.
This, I think, is the biggest driver. People (and I mean this in the nicest way) are sheep. We flock to stores at Christmas. We blindly and mindlessly follow apparent leaders toward new fashions and fads. And we hate, hate, hate getting caught standing alone in the field.
As an aside - and a pre-emptive strike against those who would point out the commonness of “rebels” in our midst - I should acknowledge that we are not all one breed of sheep. There are lots of “anti-establishment” and contrarian flocks. There are huge groups of young people who indicate their “otherness” by joining the new legions of the pierced and tattooed. There are curmudgeons of all ages who love to play devil’s advocate, who gather around the open-mouth radio shows and all shout, “Yah!” when Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh or (in Canada) even Roy Green says that we should all stand up to “big government” - seemingly oblivious to the fact that the big government we most fear is the one they elected, the Harperite/Tea Party coalition that is fully beholden to an industrial block that is more than happy to invest a fortune in faking “grassroots” protests against anything that doesn’t serve its interests.
Having, for a short time, tended actual, four-legged sheep, here’s what I know about flocks. It is impossible to convince a lot of sheep to do anything. They don’t listen to reason and if you shout at them they all just scatter stupidly. But if you can convince ONE sheep to do something with apparent conviction, the rest of the sheep will jump on board with nary a second thought - nary a first thought, really. And, as with sheep: people.
Still, no. Nothing we do as individuals will make any damn difference in the fight to forestall devastating climate change. The incremental reduction in my personal carbon budget resulting from my having chosen cycling over driving is all but laughable against the seemingly inexorable expansion of shale gas wells and tar sand refineries. But if a few of us are seen breaking suddenly in a good direction, others will follow. And unlike sheep, people WILL give it a second thought, and in doing so, they will expand their own commitment and start looking for action from their flocking neighbours. Ultimately, they may even start demanding reasonable, responsible and terrifyingly overdue action from government. And then we win. (Or, given the state of Arctic ice, we slow the pace at which we’re losing, perhaps enough to adapt to the changes that we have already wrought.)
So don’t take yourself too seriously when you plug in the compact fluorescent, plant the garden or lose the keys to the SUV. You cannot save the planet by your actions, but you might by your example. By your show of citizenship - of leadership - you might turn out to be the sheep that makes the difference.

Get DeSmog News and Alerts


Brilliant last paragraph, and I was so glad to see you reach that conclusion. I know my son becomes very upset with the notion that “nothing I can do makes a difference”, and I think we owe it to our children, who are going to bear the brunt of this looming mess, to not give up. As David Orr put it so well, Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.

Following on your thoughts, perhaps when we write to politicians etc we should include a list of the actions we have personally taken, along with the $$$ expended to do so. Having put our money where our mouths are, we have even more reason to demand they do the same.

All together now, in the most positive way: BAAAAAAAA!

Exactly so, and beautifully said. And I am more and more encouraged by the determination of our children. Somewhat ruefully I have begun to realize that I am now, in their eyes, one of the generation that “made a mess of things”, as my parents were to me – but that’s no reason to stop doing whatever I can.


I think that political will is built by more and more people picking up on a meme (like Economic Revolution! No more fossil fuels! The Burning Age is over! The Solar Age must begin!) and talking about it online and in coffee shops and at parties to help it go viral. Then it’s the governments who scramble to not be seen standing alone in a field of sheep poo.