Does individual responsibility matter in a global problem like climate change?

What role does individual responsibility play in large and complex issues as climate change and environmental degradation? This question has been in my mind for a while now, and a YouTube video of Jordan Peterson answering this question made me churn this question further. His answer intrigued me, and this video is my take on his answer.

How do you take individual responsibility with climate change?

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Timestamps:

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 01:12 This is what Jordan Peterson had to say…
  • 02:36 Addressing a problem with how this question is framed…
  • 03:13 Ripples into waves
  • 03:33 Cleaning my room
  • 04:39 She carries her own cloth bag!
  • 05:25 One resident’s in a residential complex…
  • 06:18 Where does collective action fit in, then?
  • 06:59 Conclusion

Transcript of the video

Everyone talks about how individual responsibility is necessary as we tackle climate change and environmental degradation.

But…

It is very easy to feel helpless when you see news reports of corporation cutting down forests, the government approving large hydro projects that will submerge huge lands.

When I see these reports, I wonder how my decision to take public transport, or buy ecolabeled products will make a difference.

Does my individual action – small and limited as it is – matter in a problem as large and complex as climate change and environmental degradation? Isn’t this something only the government, and large corporations with truckloads of money can fix?


A YouTube clip of Jordan Peterson answering this question on an Australian TV show called Q&A is quite popular. I will be using this as a reference to answer this question.

JP’s stance on this topic was very firm. He says that if people take individual responsibility, fix their lives and move forward in their careers, they can steer the community in a better direction. Essentially, a well-informed individual can guide the community in climate action.

When pressed by the moderator to give a yes/no answer to the question we see one of those rare instances where Jordan gives a straight answer.

I’ll share my thoughts on this answer in a moment, but before I do that, I think it’s important to address one problem associated with question.

We often unconsciously frame this question as a battle: individual action vs collective action. Which is MORE important? This is what the moderator also does. This creates fertile ground for a blame game. It can become very easy for the individual to say “oh the government isn’t doing anything!” and just as easy for the government and community institutions to say “the citizens don’t seem to have any interest in this, they aren’t demanding change”.

This is a stalemate we do not want. So, let’s not do that.


Individual action and collective response are related, they feed into each other. This is because individual action never manifests itself only at the individual level. Ripples of it are felt in the people around you, immediately or eventually.

JP didn’t illustrate extensively in that clip, but let me do so.

Growing up, if I cleaned my room, the end result was not “Saurab has a clean room”. If I cleaned my room, I wanted my mom to notice that I cleaned my room. So, I would go into the kitchen or the bedroom or wherever she is, drag her to show my beautifully organized, clean room. My mom would beam at me and say, “Well done!” Then, she would go out into the living room, drag my younger brother from in front of the tv and bring him into my room. “Look at your brother, see how well he has cleaned his room. Why can’t you clean your room also!”

He would turn around in absolute disgust and walk back.

But by the end of the day, he would clean his room. Or if he was feeling particularly rebellious, he would do it the next day. Or he would, at the very least, organize his study table.

My action influenced something else inside the house, however small.


You see this acting out everywhere else. If you carried a cloth bag to the supermarket every time you went to buy something, the cashiers are going to notice. And once you build a rapport with them, it’s quite likely they will begin the recommend what you do to their other customers. I’ve seen this happening with me; one of the cashiers in my local supermarket had once pointed out a woman who brought her own cloth bag and it was one of the reasons I started bringing my own cloth bag to the supermarket.

There are other ways to engage as an individual and create collective change. For example, if you feel strongly about some environmental problem in your community, why don’t you reach out to the community welfare association? Initiate a discussion?

Back in college, my friends and I interned with an NGO called FORCE. We went to several colonies around Delhi to help design rainwater harvesting networks within the colony. I was there because someone in that colony had proposed to do rainwater harvesting, and the resident welfare associations were convinced. That once person managed to influence positive action in that community.


I am not suggesting the government’s response and corporations’ responsibility is not needed, and to his credit, neither is Jordan. But government processes are notoriously slow. Corporations hate change. In a situation where we need to act fast, we cannot stand by and wait for them to respond. We need to actively engage, and our individual ripples can do that.

We live in a wonderful world where not every decision in society rests with our ‘rulers’. One benefit from this capitalist, technologically-connected and democratic society is that individual action and choices can influence many things.

If you want to see more renewable energy generation in the country but do not have the knowledge to start your own company or the finances to set up your own rooftop solar panels, invest into a renewable energy start-up! If you want the government to be more mindful of environmental issues, donate to an environmental journal that asks the government tough questions! Donate to environmental charities, or support activists speaking out against poor practices!

These are ALL individual actions, and they can very clearly influence collective response at higher levels of society.

So, on the whole, I agree with what JP says in that video.

Individual action can very tangibly affect and influence collective response.

What do you think? Does individual responsibility make a difference in climate action? Let me know in the comments.

As always, thank you for watching/reading. If you liked the video, then please like the video, share the video and subscribe to the channel if you haven’t already done so. Keep supporting us, as we try to make the world ecologically intelligent.


Original video from Australian Broadcasting Corporation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmNSlF7lcaw

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

5 thoughts

  1. Individual action alone will not be making much of a difference in climate action, right? Especially seeing that 71% of carbon dioxide emissions are caused by just 100 companies. It’s important, but won’t be of much help against the climate crisis. We’ll be needing more of systemic change.

    Like

    1. Individual action “alone” will not make much of a difference, but that doesn’t mean that individual action doesn’t have any role to play. It does, and a big one!
      Think about it; a lot of the systemic changes we need are a combination of different individual actions and influences. A business leader takes the decisions on how the business is run. These companies have the finances to bring new tech; that responsibility also lies with some engineering head within that company (an individual). Even if you aren’t part of that business, your individual action can influence their decisions protests, campaigns, or taking up community leadership positions. It can also be through supporting alternate companies, through investments. It seems far-fetched, but it really isn’t! Once we realize the power an individual holds and can influence in today’s world, we can, step-by-step, figure out how to bring change.
      Individual influences may be slow, but not slower than government or corporate changes!

      Liked by 1 person

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