By Melanie Danke

I’m the sort of person who likes when my personal choices have clear and immediate results; when an early night in bed is followed by a deep sleep and a productive morning or when the after-glow from a challenging run makes me feel like I could take on the world. How is it then, that I’ve been working hard on this climate problem for months and still the planet is warming? I’ve cut my driving down to just about nothing, I’m vegan, and I kept the thermostat set this winter at a temperature low enough to make my kids threaten to call social services. Where, exactly, is the payoff?

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There is a strong debate on whether or not climate change is too big for one individual’s actions to make a difference. The Carbon Majors Report, published in 2017, revealed that more than 70% of global carbon emissions are caused by just 100 energy companies, a fact that is more than a little anxiety-producing when contemplating whether your efforts are doing any good at all. The IPCC report stressed that we are to cut total emissions by 50% – or more! –  in the next decade if we hope to succeed in securing a livable future. Simple math renders this goal impossible unless we mandate that these energy companies switch gears and start transitioning to renewable technology, a move they have been throwing huge corporate dollars around to prevent. Make no mistake about it, broad policy change is what we need to protect our climate; anything less and we are attempting to turn the Titanic with a rowboat oar.

Using public transportation, cutting back on meat, and rethinking every one of our purchases will not affect the level of carbon in the atmosphere unless we follow it up with concerted political pressure. Inevitably, this talk of escalating engagement makes folks uneasy. I know perfectly lovely people, people already doing so many of the right things; recycling, biking to work, voting for candidates who believe strongly in climate change. You would never catch them dumping untreated fracking wastewater directly into a stream, say, or spilling 83,000 gallons of crude oil in a ditch. But they get very touchy when asked to step outside the comfort of their own habits and into the world of political engagement. I know, because I’m one of them. “But I’m already doing so much!” I inwardly whine when another call to action comes out. Unfortunately, however much that is, it isn’t enough. Look around. If we all keep doing exactly what we’re doing, then this is what we’ve got. All the solar panels, the electric cars, the compost piles added together have led to a world warming at an alarming rate. We need to do more to change that reality and we need to do it quickly. A swift, decisive legislative policy drawing back our dependency on fossil fuels is what we need, and it’s not going to happen without considerable public pressure.

Still, for all of this, I do believe that personal changes matter. The political changes we are trying to enact, follow on the heels of demonstrated shifts in lifestyle norms. I think it’s reasonable to assume that no politician would take our stated carbon-reducing concerns seriously without any corresponding change in constituents behavior, nor will any energy company voluntarily switch from the insanely lucrative fossil fuel investments of the past, to the newer, renewable technologies without a demonstrated and significant call for those services. Policy does not spring, fully formed, from the ether like Aphrodite on her clam shell, and neither, for that matter, do Big Oil’s profits. What our personal choices can do is create an environment from which we better leverage our political and consumer demands.

Seeing our personal choices as supporting deeper, societal changes is crucial to prevent manipulation from the industries we are trying to influence. If we’re not careful, all our good works can end up allowing business to continue as usual. Take the anti-littering group, Keep America Beautiful. It was actually started by packaging industry leaders to shift the focus of America’s garbage problem away from potential laws requiring reusable packaging and squarely onto individual behavior. So the massive amounts of plastic bottles produced are not the problem, it’s that you, you personally, do not recycle nearly as much as you should. And since 1953 they’ve managed to keep the debate – and their dollars – right where they’ve wanted them. While it is unarguably good that folks stopped tossing their trash out moving car windows, we cannot allow personal lifestyle choices to be the focus of the climate debate. I’m sure Exxon would love if we spent all our time arguing about the carbon footprint of almond milk vs dairy, never mind the poison they are pumping into the atmosphere daily.

On a human note, however, perhaps we should be making these lifestyle changes simply for our peace of mind. We are creatures of meaning, after all. Failing to align our behaviors and our values wears at us in subtle ways, creating the sort of spiritual friction that leads to unease. Freeing ourselves from that discrepancy can be a lifeline in uncertain times. It’s a notable irony that at a time when the future seems scarier and more uncertain than ever, I find myself feeling, in flashes, more contented or dare I say, optimistic. I chalk it up to finally living deliberately and consciously. It might have been that my pessimism about change was due to how little of it I was doing. How could I possibly think that these massive systems could change when I wasn’t able to make myself walk the six blocks to my neighborhood grocery store? We are all so tired and overextended and freaked out about the world, at least everyone I know.  I’m here to tell you, that getting solid with yourself is a comfort.

And lastly, consider the case of Afroz Shah, a lawyer from Mumbai. Brokenhearted over the seemingly irreparable loss of his childhood beach to plastic debris, he began hauling away the trash that had washed up over the years. When you look at the “before” pictures of the coast covered shin-deep in plastic bottles and bags just as far as you could see, it seems impossible to find a more foolhardy, futile gesture.  But one person joined and then another. Three years later, 100,000 volunteers had joined him. 20 million cases of garbage were ultimately hauled from the now pristine beach. I strongly suggest you watch the video if you haven’t already, and if you don’t immediately feel inspired and a little bit in love with this man, well, I don’t know how to help you.

So, get out there! Ride your bike to work, join a solar garden, consider, for the love of god, the ravages of consumerism before you purchase that plastic avocado slicer. Be so enthusiastic and so in love with this beautiful world that you inspire 100,000 of your fellow neighbors and voters to join you. Or maybe just one. And if that one person turns out to be the CEO of an international energy conglomerate, all the better.


Melanie Danke is a writer and mother living in Minneapolis. When life allows, she likes to run long distances, if only to answer the question, “Is a 50 mile trail run easier than raising five teenagers?” Yes. The answer is yes.