On September 17th, 2020, artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd set up a ten-story clock in Manhattan’s Union Square. Now, this clock didn’t simply tell us the time of the day, but served as an indicator of a looming, devastating threat: how much time we have before the effects of climate change become irreversible. At the time of installment it read: 7 years, 103 days, 15 hours, 40 minutes, 7 seconds. When the clock was unveiled, artist Golan encouraged viewers to reflect on their own carbon footprint and individual lifestyle. “The world is literally counting on us”, he said, “Every hour, every minute, every second, counts” (Hassan).
The installation contributed to the growing collective panic surrounding climate change. A flurry of questions chaotically circled the globe. “What can we do to stop this?” “Am I doing enough?” “Who should be held accountable?” Accountability, blame, who should the proverbial finger be pointed at? Are we as individuals ethically obligated to change our lifestyles to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change? Or should we look to the major players, industry and corporations, the primary source of the devastation of planetary health? Let’s dive deeper.
Yes, we all contribute to global warming through our cumulative collective actions. However, the climate crisis is much bigger than saying goodbye to plastic straws and altering our diets and modes of transportation. That being said, these ideas have dominated public conversation and generated a massive amount of media attention. Why?
Cancelling plastic straws is slapping a band-aid over a much deeper problem. Though environmentally friendly, and definitely a step in the right direction, it functions on too small a scale to generate the magnitude and impact that addressing these issues requires and deserves. The focus on the narrative that individuals alone can combat climate change is intentional and fueled by corporate interests. It suggests that individual actions and consumer choice have the ability to make the ultimate impact on planetary health, shifting the blame away from fossil fuels and the energy sector.
Fossil fuel interests intentionally lead us astray— spending billions to craft the narrative misperception that the individual alone is responsible for climate change, and the individual alone has the power to save the planet.
Ironically, oil and fossil fuel companies categorize themselves as leaders in the renewable energy movement. A confusing thought isn’t it? Companies intent on land degradation and resource depletion, spewing out endless greenhouse gases and pollution through drilling and other means, are vying to be voted America’s Most Climate Friendly.
There is no question that the fossil fuel industry has played a massive role in the climate change crisis. What has been lacking is accountability, and only governments have the power to keep corporations in check. It’s more convenient for them to encourage individual action, as that requires less legislation, regulation, and time.
Governments do have the power to enact policy that would regulate industries to remain within sustainable emission limits and transition towards a renewable-focused energy sector. It’s time they demonstrate true leadership and vigilance towards protecting the planet and all that inhabit it, tackling environmental challenges head-on.
So, what is the individual’s role in the climate crisis? This is my opinion. Individual action matters. Personal action and government or industry action need not stand in opposition to each other, but can actually work as a collective to create positive change for the common good. We can encourage individual changes in behavior and consumption patterns while still requiring systemic change and government agency. The idea that individuals hold no semblance of power is one that unfortunately is shared by many is this country. By declaring that individual behavior changes make no impact on the climate crisis asserts indifference, while simultaneously absolving us all from responsibility and obligation.
Taking measures of personal responsibility for climate change displays a belief in your individual power. Participating in a meatless Monday or deciding to walk to work makes a statement that you believe your actions matter. When we take responsibility for how our daily behaviors impact the environment, we become empowered and our decisions become amplified. Individual actions, especially in a collective form, can be incredibly powerful.
All this being said, an individual’s decision to regularly eat meat or rely solely on their personal automobile for transportation should not be considered morally blameworthy. Individuals who live in developing countries, developing countries in their entirety, deserve the most support and least blame. The climate crisis is not shared equally between developing countries, developing countries in their entirety, deserve the most support and least blame.
The climate crisis is not shared equally between all nations, there are a few main players who are disproportionately responsible, China and the United States at the top of the list. These countries and the people who reside within them, should not share equal blame or obligation. They are not the primary perpetrators of rising greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, massive rapid biodiversity loss, and the devastation of our ice caps and Arctic landscapes. They should not be required to enact the same structural changes, the same emission caps, as the nations and industries who are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis we are facing today.
So, it’s true that individual action to address climate change and environmental issues is insufficient, but that individual action is also powerful, and essential. While individual agency, especially in collective form, is invaluable, it is also necessary for governments and industry to hold themselves accountable. Widespread initiative needs to be taken, policy needs to be enacted and enforced, and emissions need to be reduced. It’s time for our current administration, corporate polluters, and national and international governing bodies to bind together, cooperate, and create positive change for the planet—as the clock is truly ticking.
Hassan, Jennifer. “How long until it’s too late to save Earth from climate disaster? This clock is counting down.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Sept. 2020