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Why making individuals responsible for environmental crises misses the point

Many individuals are doing what they can. But real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics” – David Attenborough

fishery environmental crises

In a world of instant news and seemingly-never-ending crises it’s easy to feel a little hopeless. For those of us who can drag ourselves out of the emotional muck and mire, many may want to know how they can help. The commonly heard refrain is often some form to the question: “What can I do as an individual to help resolve this problem?”

Intention is important, and this is a well-meaning sentiment. However, the way this question is framed artificially narrows our vision. The replies offered in return, often cut from the same stock-answer, can mislead. And this can limit the effectiveness of our response to environmental crises. 

Take the documentary Seaspiracy (2021). The film does an excellent job of highlighting the catastrophic impact industrial fishing is having on our planet’s oceans, pushing wildlife populations and ecosystems towards collapse. As recent IPCC reports show, our oceans are in a perilous position. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, only 6.2% of the world’s marine fish populations are neither “fully fished” nor “overfished”, and these populations continue to decline. Because of overfishing and destructive techniques like industrial-trawling, industrial fishing is the leading cause death and decline of marine animals. Inappropriate management of the oceans is widespread. ‘Marine reserves’ are ineffective, the intensity of trawling in ‘protected areas’ is greater than in unprotected areas, local communities are deprived from their subsistence catch, and ‘sustainable seafood’ is often nothing of the kind. 

Yet the concluding words of the film, from director and lead Ali Tabrizi, were that “the single best thing I could do every single day to protect the ocean and the marine life I loved, was to simply not eat them”.

This is a problem of planetary scale, of system and structure, so why is responsibility being individualised? 

Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has structured the way governments, economies and societies around the world have developed. It’s power manifests in the pressure on supranational institutions, governments and local authorities alike to enact pro-market regulatory reforms, which expand opportunities for capital accumulation by markets and private enterprise. 

Societies are shaped to reflect the core tenets of the ideology. Competition is the defining characteristic of human relations. Citizens are reduced to the status of rational individuals and consumers, our wellbeing the product only of the goods we consume. And the public institutions, assets and collective organisations (trade unions, public services, community spaces, etc.) that offer a space for the collective, have been eroded and diminished.

Under neoliberalism, whatever the problem, responsibility is always displaced and redacted beyond sense or understanding. Generations of advertising campaigns – with taglines like “People Start Pollution. People can stop it” – have been pumped out, funded by the very beverage and packaging juggernauts producing billions of plastic bottles each year. Clever concepts, like the carbon footprint, are created by companies like BP to promote the idea that environmental crises are the result of individual consumer choices. Newspapers print endless pages telling us how we can reduce our individual contribution to emissions. And governments, eager to avoid having to take action, advise us to wash our plates before putting them in the dishwasher. 

We’re being fed a false-narrative, reducing complex systemic issues to the scale of the individual.

Of course, if more people choose to live in a more sustainable way, this is not without benefit. At the personal level, living in a more sustainable way may help to alleviate feelings of eco-anxiety, as we find a sense of control or agency in the face of environmental crises. 

As consumers, we do have some power. Increasing numbers of brands are offering sustainable ranges and products to attract climate-aware consumers; supermarkets and food-chains are offering increasing vegan options. Campaigns are persuading many to commit to being flight free. And electric car use is rising rapidly. Enough people exercising consumer-power helps to facilitate cultural change, raising awareness about environmental issues, putting pressure on the political system, helping to shift the dial on global emissions. 

This is particularly important for wealthy people in wealthier countries. High and upper middle-income countries emit significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than poorer countries. Historically, North America and Europe, with the US far in the lead, have emitted the most. And the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population – carving up the planet in their private jets, fleets of SUVs and mega-yachts – have been responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest half of the world. 

Nonetheless, the disproportionate amount of attention individual responsibility for environmental crisis receives is deeply problematic. Changing individual behaviours may help you live more in line with your values, easing eco-anxiety, but the system in which we’re a part forces us to harm the planet by its operation. Individual actions alone are not capable of solving the problem.

As recent research from the International Energy Association shows, only around 8% of the required emissions reductions comes from individual behavioural changes. 

Environmental crisis and climate breakdown is a systemic problem. 

The true ability for a society to live sustainably comes not from any individual capacity to spend and save. Instead, it comes from governments making economies, building infrastructures, and creating regulatory environments that make living sustainably the most effective, efficient, and viable choice for how we live. 

In terms of our oceans, we need to shift patterns of trade and production, create new regulatory regimes, and re-imagine our relationship with the oceans upon which we all depend. 

Industrial fishing in international waters needs to end. This is as important as reducing fossil fuel use for emissions. Industrial fishing is causing the destruction of marine life and biodiversity, mass extinction, and the breakdown of the carbon cycle. 

The ocean needs to be protected and fishery management must become more sustainable. Although this should be just the start, many countries have signed up to expand protection of the oceans to 30% by 2030.

Broader processes of environmental crises threaten the oceans through acidification, loss of oxygen and the destruction of coral reefs. Pollution spills over from plastics, water temperatures are becoming dangerously high. And farming practises, like manure use and nitrogen-fertilisers, are creating dead zones in the oceans. 

The sustainable management, conservation and restoration of coastal and marine systems is vital. Regulation is needed in fishing and tourism to make practises more sustainable. And support needs to be expanded for scientific research in impact monitoring and policy-design.

Creating systems-change of this kind requires collective action. 

Where neoliberalism has rendered us atomised individuals, we must rekindle the collective. 

Human-beings have an unparalleled ability to organise and work together to solve bigger issues than ourselves. This isn’t just a truth about the tools at our disposal, it is our fundamental nature as a species. Without the relationships, communities, and societies we call our collective, we wither and die. 

By contributing our individual energy to the collective, to the broader ecology of political and social movements advocating for change, we can rediscover where real power resides. We can do this at different levels.

We can join the social movements that exert pressure on the system, lobbying the government and its agents from the outside. Activist organisations and movements like Extinction Rebellion or the school strikes play a key role in raising awareness and keeping sustainability on the agenda.

We can contribute to political conversations and discourse, to challenge old ideas and develop new ones. Progressive and independent journalism (The GuardianNovara Media, etc.) can hold the powerful to account. Documentaries and films can reach millions around the world. And academics and think-tanks can develop new policies and ideas. 

And crucially, we can engage in politics. We can vote for political parties that have developed considered and radical programmes to tackle environmental crises and climate breakdown. We can join those political parties, campaign for them, promote their agenda and persuade others to do the same. 

The issues that documentaries like Seaspiracy raise are vital, but the conclusions they reach are only one piece of the puzzle. We are far more than the individual consumers neoliberalism has tried to mould us into. Only by finding ways to contribute to collective efforts at system change, can we find lasting and sustainable solutions to environmental crises. Our oceans are just the start.

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