A succinct account of my view on individual and collective action

I am regularly accused of reducing responses to climate change to simple individual action, sacrifice and “having to give things up” – hair shirts and all that. 

This is categorically not my view, and whilst I clearly take some responsibility for it being a common interpretation of my position, I also suggest there is some deliberate and perhaps sloppy misreading of my comments, etc.

For the record:

My take on individual & collective responsibility
At the risk of shortening what is most appropriately a lengthy and deep discussion over a beer on a cold winters night, I do not see the individual and collective (formal and informal institutions) as separate. They are unavoidably and intimately entwined, only drawn apart as a convenient reductionist tool of analysis to help make sense of complicated and complex issues. But we have to repeatedly remind ourselves that the separation is nothing but an epistemological construct – it is not ‘real’.

The disciplinary structure of universities, divided into faculties and subdivided into schools, departments, etc. all interpreting the world through their own narrow methodological lens – is similarly little more than an effective and epistemological reduction of whatever is out there (of which of course we’re a part). Such post-enlightenment reductionism has proved phenomenally successful and is a pivotal basis for modern industrial society – both its wonders and its ills. But whilst the ‘wonders’ continue to flourish through still more reductionism (just think of gene therapy) – mitigating the ‘ills’ demands we acknowledge and attempt to address thorny systemic and innately interdisciplinary issues.

It is this fuzzy duality that provides the context for my thinking on climate change – and most other issues. When I focus on the individual, I’m seeing them, typically, as a symbolic but essential catalyst for collective (system) change.

The individual dimension of my focus is on those of us who, by good fortune rather than our own peculiarly hard endeavour (with the odd exception), find ourselves occupying influential positions. As such we have much greater wherewithal and opportunity to initiate rapid and deep change – and in a sense I view this as a ‘duty’ that rightly accompanies our fortunate happenstance. Let me add here – I do not think this is how it should be, but rather that it is an outcome of the huge power asymmetry that our society has still failed to address – an asymmetry that I think is neither healthy nor inevitable.

So individuals are solely an ignition source for the flames from which a Phoenix may arise – but only if others and ultimately institutions are mobilised. In my realm of academia, individual students, researchers and academics can have major influence in catalysing progressive revolutions within their own institutions – divestment being one such example. Similarly, the sacking and subsequent protests by Mary Manning, a young cashier at a major Irish store who refused to put ‘apartheid’ fruit through her till – catalysed a change in Ireland’s national legislation.

It is this system-level interpretation – where vociferous individuals coalescing to form casual collectives that subsequently drive change within larger formal institutions – that always informs my references to individual action, lifestyles, etc. 

Sacrifice … “having to give things up”
I seldom use this expression, but when I do I am focussing specifically on climate change and the international obligations around temperature (e.g. the Paris commitment to take action to stay “well below 2°C” and “pursue … 1.5°C”). Such temperature thresholds relate to specific carbon-budget ranges (i.e. the total quantity of carbon that can be emitted across the century), and in this regard I see ‘sacrifice’ as a zero sum game – operating within highly constrained timeframes; i.e. winners and losers balance out – there is no net sacrifice.

Transforming from a high- to a zero-carbon energy infrastructure will take several decades. In the interim, if carbon budgets are to be respected, reductions in, and redistribution of, energy consumption (and hence emissions) are essential. This is particularly important if domestic fuel poverty is to be alleviated and the development and improved material well-being of poorer nations is to be facilitated through greater access to energy.

Acknowledging that emissions are highly skewed towards a relatively small proportion of the population is a prerequisite of meaningful policy. As Chancel and Piketty note, just 10% of the global population is responsible for around 50% of global emissions. If the carbon budgets associated with the Paris commitments are to be respected, I see no mathematical alternative but for those of us responsible for the lions share of emissions to rapidly and deeply reduce our energy consumption.

That said, I am not of the view that this will be achieved through widespread and altruistic individual action. Rather, and as discussed above, it will require disparate catalysts (initially some individuals) to bring attention to the issues and demonstrate alternatives that  others, and eventually policy makers, can subsequently scale up. But – however the pill may be sweetened – for the many millions of us who have normalised a lifestyle with colossal carbon footprints, the necessary scale of reductions will be perceived as a sacrifice. The quid pro quo of such sacrifice is that carbon ‘space’ will be freed up for others. Such space enables early and additional access to energy to improve the quality of life of poorer communities; i.e. a balance of winners and losers with no net sacrifice.

A final quick note:
In virtually all my presentations and in much that I write I explicitly and repeatedly discuss policies, ranging from specific emission standards through to a Marshall-plan style transformation of the energy system. Given this, to neglect my references to institutional change in favour of exaggerating my focus on the individual masks an alternative agenda (or perhaps is an attempt to undermine a challenging interpretation of where asymmetric responsibilities reside). It is those of us who write and read ramblings such as this who are disproportionately both the problem and the solution to climate change. But such responsibility weighs heavy, it is much easier to point the finger of blame elsewhere.