By Laura Zilverberg

We’ve written about personal choices before, and I think it’s clear to the followers of MN350 that we believe strongly in the power of collective action. 

But a recent piece from Vox made me think about personal choice and its impact on who feels excluded from the movement. Mary Annaise Heglar writes a compelling piece titled “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” 

Her piece challenges us to keep the bigger picture in mind, a picture that we talk about often at MN350: the fact that 71 percent of emissions are coming from only 100 companies, including Exxon which knowingly misled the public on climate change.

For me, it’s freeing to hear those words. Like many people who work in the climate justice movement I have no illusions that my personal choices are going to save the world, but I can often fall into the trap of thinking that I’m not doing enough. Maybe if I work harder. Maybe if I just consume less, bike more and exhaust myself trying to be the perfect environmentalist, things will get better. 

It’s ridiculous. 

We don’t have time to wait. We don’t have time to squabble about personal choices and try to shame people into changing their habits. We have fewer than 12 years to take action, according to the now infamous 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To build a powerful climate justice movement, we need everyone. We need hardcore environmentalists and we need people who will never change their diet, board a bus or cut back on their flying. 

Perhaps most importantly we need to listen to and elevate the communities that are and will continue to be most impacted by climate change. Youth, indigenous communities and people of color are bearing the costs of climate destruction. Meanwhile these are the same people leading real solutions to protect our health, safety and democracy. Just look at the Line 3 resistance coming from indigenous leadership, student strikes for climate justice and MN350’s own work with transit riders for a sampling of this work here in Minnesota. 

We need to create an inclusive movement that features diverse voices, lifts up the most vulnerable and recognizes that the climate change movement must also be a movement of justice. 

We can’t do that if we shame people for their personal choices while completely ignoring the inherent privilege of even being able to make certain choices around transportation and consumption. How can you bike to work if you are already working more than one job? You may not have a choice about where your electricity comes from if you are renting your primary residence. It’s unreasonable to expect people to take public transportation if it doesn’t exist in their neighborhood. And we may be putting that pressure disproportionately on women who already bear the mental and emotional load for many households, according to a separate Vox article on the popular zero waste movement.  

Moving forward it will be imperative that others around the world be able to consume more as they rise out of poverty. The late Hans Rosling has an incredible demonstration of this in his Ted Talk, “The Magic Washing Machine.” People on Level One (another hat tip to Rosling) must be able to have access to clean drinking water. They shouldn’t live in fear about their children dying from preventable disease, and they should have access to the basic necessities that we take for granted on Level Four — electricity, reliable transportation and clean cooking fuel. To deny the billion people Level One, these necessities to spare the climate would be supremely unjust.

There is hope that developing countries will be able to bypass a fossil fuel economy. For example the Lamu Coal Power Plant was recently stopped in Kenya, by a court ruling, and Kenya is on track for 100% renewable energy by 2020. However, it’s still likely that for some nations fossil fuel consumption will temporarily increase on the path to development. 

I’m done feeling shame. I’m done worrying when I forget to bring my own glass to-go container to a restaurant. I’ll continue to make choices that make my life better, and also happen to be good for the environment. I enjoy taking the bus to work. I prefer eating fresh and unprocessed foods. I feel better when I work outside in my garden and I truly find line drying my clothes to be an enjoyable experience. 

By moving away from shame, I’m finding freedom. Freedom to work with others in collaboration to make real change. It’s energizing and it feels like we might have a chance to surmount this challenge, but only if we work together.

I’m going to focus my efforts on the work that can make the biggest difference – volunteering with MN350, contacting my local government representatives to advocate for climate action, voting and protesting Line 3 (which according to a Grist article may actually be effective).

On average we Americans consume too much, but personal choices won’t take us where we need to go. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez states it succinctly on Twitter of all places, “living in the world isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.”

Let’s work together to create a better future for everyone. Join the movement. Stop worrying about your carbon footprint and help hold the industries and government that have gotten us in this mess accountable. If you’ve ever asked, “What can I do to help climate change?” here are three things you can do this month: 

Laura Zilverberg is a public relations professional, volunteer with, wife and mother of two. She used to be an avid runner and plans to be again once her kids sleep through the night. She enjoys reading and channeling her dread about climate change into baked goods, gardening and blog posts.