Dr. Jay Michaelson is a meditation teacher, rabbi, lawyer, activist, and journalist. In addition to teaching environmental ethics at Boston University Law School and Chicago Theological Seminary, he’s reported for years on climate change. And what he said on episode #384 of Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier podcast (“What to do About Eco-Anxiety”) caught me off guard:
“There is no individual behavioral change that you can take that will make any difference in global climate change.”
Um, excuse me?
“The average American’s carbon footprint is 16 tons of greenhouse gasses a year. That’s much higher than any other country. But even if you were to reduce that, you would get 0.0000000003% of a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one 300 billionth of the total. That is not enough to make any difference. And that’s if you got to zero. Realistically, you can’t, of course, get your emissions to zero. So no, no individual action will do it. And not enough people are virtuous enough to be persuaded.”
In his written companion piece to the interview, Michaelson references a How to Save a Planet conversation between All We Can Save’s Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg (with a guest appearance by her co-editor Dr. Katharine Wilkinson). In it, they explain the math behind his shocking generalization. Essentially, they conclude that “part of the reason your individual choices don’t matter that much is because a lot of the ways greenhouse gasses get emitted are things you don’t have control over as an individual.”
Wilkinson breaks it down: “At a global level, greenhouse gasses are coming from basically six different sectors of the economy, human society, however you want to think about it.” Global electricity production is about 25 percent of the problem, she says. Next is food – agriculture and land use – at 24 percent of global emissions. Industry – especially its use of refrigerants – accounts for 20%, followed by transportation’s reliance on internal combustion engines at 15% of emissions. This is rounded out with the use of oil and gas to heat buildings and by the extraction, processing, and transport of fossil fuels. That gets us to approximately 100% of the greenhouse gas problem.
So what we do in our personal lives really doesn’t have any real impact on these emissions? Johnson points to the conclusion of Dr. Leah Stokes: “Even if you are the perfect, zero-waste, low-carbon footprint human being, that doesn’t change the world unless you do something bigger than yourself. If you disappear tomorrow, we would still be facing exactly the same magnitude of climate crisis because you’re just a rounding error to global carbon emissions.”
Hear that silence? It’s the collective jaw drop of decades of activists who have rallied for us to change our habits, buy fewer and different products, and – of course – rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle. That silence is the audience’s hush when the familiar paradigm of personal responsibility begins to exit stage left, but the new paradigm has yet to enter from the opposite wings.
The focus now must be on massive changes in those six economic sectors. Truly major shifts – and soon. Wilkinson refers to Bill McKibben’s thinking: “He’s like, climate change is a math problem, and the numbers are really, really big. And now the timelines are very, very tight. So we have to be thinking in terms of our greatest leverage to get the biggest reductions possible.”
Shouldn’t we continue to analyze the carbon consequences of each of our day-to-day choices? “Screw devoting all of this time and energy to sort of trying to minutely lower your impact,” Alex Blumberg says, “because when you focus all your effort on this, you’re focusing all this effort on something that makes a pretty tiny difference in the grand scheme of things.”
Let’s bring back in Jay Michaelson, who does not believe that individual action is actually pointless. He simply believes that there are other reasons to do it. “Your individual choices may reflect your ethical values and communicate those values to others,” he writes. “Those are good things. But in terms of actually mitigating climate change, they simply don’t make a difference.”
He says the answer is in political engagement, focusing our energies on those whose decisions truly impact the larger systems that are the real emissions culprits. And he believes mindfulness and meditation are essential tools.
“First, meditation can help us rest, relax, and restore. We get mentally messy, and then we wash off. That is of enormous value. But more importantly, meditation trains the mind to be with difficult emotions so that you don’t have to freak out when you experience them. By learning to coexist with anger, frustration, fear, and despair in meditation, you don’t get triggered by them for the rest of your life.”
Building mindfulness, he suggests, strengthens our ability to pendulate, that is “engaging with the challenging material and then backing away from it to restore. It’s like a cycle: do your activist work, notice when you get stuck, restore, and return.”
I’ve been sitting with this for a few months, and the implications of these experts’ opinions are still reverberating for me. Like many of us, I have fallen into the trap of taking “individual actions which may give us an illusion of power but which don’t actually make a difference,” Michaelson writes.
After reading a draft of this post, my Climate Action Team co-lead Nicole Haines weighed in: “There are benefits to personal action. Acting in congruence with our values keeps us inspired. it inspires others. Individual consumer choices – when made in mass – move more powerful corporations to change because it affects the bottom line. Political action is an individual choice. So few citizens actually express their concerns and views to their representatives that this is an area that we can make some headway.”
I’ll be spending 2023 thinking about mobilizing real power to enact the radical change needed to help us avert the worst of the crisis, a crisis whose impacts are being felt now. Nicole and I invite your participation as we shift paradigms, manage eco-anxiety, and maintain active hope in the face of daunting challenges.
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