Individual Action and System Change

Discussion Triggered by an Article in The Guardian

  forwarded to the Listserv by  Venessa Timmer (Oct-Nov 2021)

Original text:

Few willing to change lifestyle to save the planet, climate survey finds


Citizens are alarmed by the climate crisis, but most believe they are already doing more to preserve the planet than anyone else, including their government, and few are willing to make significant lifestyle changes. Widespread awareness of the importance of the climate crisis has yet to be coupled with a proportionate willingness to act. Respondents to an international survey were lukewarm about doing more themselves, citing a wide range of reasons. Most (76%) of those surveyed across 10 countries said they would accept stricter environmental rules and regulations, but almost half (46%) felt that there was no real need for them to change their personal habits. Only 51% said they would definitely take individual climate action, with 14% saying they would definitely not and 35% torn. People in Poland and Singapore (56%) were the most willing to act, and in Germany (44%) and the Netherlands (37%) the least. The most common reasons given for not being willing to do more for the planet were “I feel proud of what I am currently doing” (74%), “There isn’t agreement among experts on the best solutions” (72%), and “I need more resources and equipment from public authorities” (69%). Other reasons for not wanting to do more included “I can’t afford to make those efforts” (60%), “I lack information and guidance on what to do” (55%), “I don’t think individual efforts can really have an impact” (39%), “I believe environmental threats are overestimated” (35%) and “I don’t have the headspace to think about it” (33%).



  • The survey described in the Guardian article is really sobering. It appears that people have a very vague understanding of the connection between their lifestyles and the associated impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. We really thought that by now most people know that waste reduction and recycling make little difference. The survey mixes between actions related to personal responsibility and actions that can only be taken by national and international governments (stop deforestation or protect endangered species). Such mixing of apples and oranges in the domain of climate-protection actions only serves to confuse people even more.


Activists are raising their fists and expressing righteous indignation, but it is too vague and undefined. What would the answer be if the people on the street were asked how governments could help them live more sustainably? The pendulum has swung too far toward blaming the system and away from putting some responsibility on individuals. The consumer society is of course a complex system and it keeps people in the advanced economies caught in unsustainable lifestyles. But we are not totally helpless either. The high consumers in advanced economies have options in life: about the size and location of their homes, the amenities and so-called conveniences, their diet, the vehicles they drive and vacations they take. We overestimate people’s commitment to climate action. 


  • Can you poll people about hypothetical attitudes they might have toward a hypothetical situation they may encounter in the future? How many climate or war refugees would indicate their intention to leave their homes five years before the drought or the civil war breaks out? It is really hard to make significant lifestyle changes that push against the whole system that you are operating within. People find it next to impossible and naturally fall back on the idea that the system has to change before they can change and still operate within the system.


  • Governments can adopt policies that favor one lifestyle over another. Some of course are already happening (EVs for example) but there are many more opportunities. However, making individuals responsible for climate change and corrective action is irresponsible.  It is off-loading blame onto ordinary people who are simply trying to get by in life to the extent they can (under the counter-influence of advertising, peer pressure, etc.); it frees the corporate sector and government from doing anything.  This is a common tactic under the small-government-is-better-government and extreme free-choice-individualism of neoliberal economics.  

Try, as an individual, to implement: full cost pricing (e.g., a carbon tax, resource depletion taxes); a phase out private vehicles — including EVs; eliminating FF subsidies; rationing of fossil fuels and assigning any remaining FF budget to essential uses; better public transit, etc., etc.  Individual and NGO activities are  needed to move things forward and to motivate governments, but government policy for the common good is necessary both for the heavy lifting and to provide the legal/institutional support that citizens need to give meaning to their individual  contributions.  This is a both-and situation.

  • Why are so few governments actively advertising obvious climate-saving measures like insulating and electrifying houses and buying EV and e-bikes, and eating less meat?

While this is a far cry from advertising sustainable lifestyles; it would be an important first step.

The voice of the Mayor, the Governor and leaders like the speaker of the house and the senate president are needed on these issues. In Massachusetts people can get a free energy audit of their house and support for insulation but very few do it. Why? There seems to be a  general lack of individual motivation as well as the absence of herd support.  Why should I expend the effort and expense — i.e., make personal sacrifices — for the public good if no one else is doing it and my share of the benefits is infinitesimal (i.e., infinitely smaller than my ‘costs’?  . It may also be because you must pay enormous amounts of attention to navigate these audits and retrofits successfully. 


“Why Don’t People Weatherstrip Their Homes?”  Published in Energy 1985.Weatherstripping is invisible and its effects are not usually obvious.

Smart Homes that communicate energy feedback through dashboards, for example, are a disastrous conflagration of attention. What we need is well-insulated and draught-proofed homes that require no attention at all.  We have seen literal decades of cajoling, persuasive articles trying to convince individuals to build their home to a higher energy standard, and that can only be described as a failure. What has worked is system change, where building codes have been changed to require greater energy efficiency. Nobody needs to think further about it, their homes just perform better. 


It may be more effective to force people to do the right thing, such as through fines and penalties. Disincentives are necessary prods.  Governments need to create the socio-cultural climate and policies necessary for society to advance; citizen activists and NGOs need to put pressure on governments to act to create that policy environment. Education and awareness are only weakly related to behavior change.


Time is so short now that government action is probably more important than the impact that individuals can have.  Even if all new homes in the next 20 years were located in dense urban buildings and were small with electric space heat, if electricity was not 100% renewable by government mandate, it would not help much.  Most buildings will still be old, having been built before 2022, and consumer choice is not going to stop people from living in them no matter where they are located or how big they are.  The old buildings will still comprise the vast majority of living space.  So if the government does not subsidize via climate programs, the conversion of all buildings to electric heat and hot water with 100% renewable electricity, consumers won’t be able to do it on their own except, perhaps, for the upper middle class who could afford to do it.  The same is true for vehicle choice.  If one really needs to own a vehicle, then only the government can mandate 100% renewable electricity for electric vehicles fast enough, because the entire electricity system has to be redesigned.

  • Lifestyles in a Modern Techno-Industrial (MTI) culture are typically characterized by the following:
  • They have been told all their lives in virtually every context that they should focus on their own individual and family lives and give no thought to the various systems within which they live.  The reason of course, is that the MTI take on life and reality is that there are no systems within which they live.  As MTI men, and women, our lives are independent of “culture.”  Pre-Modern peoples have cultures.  We who are Modern have science and truth.  We are beyond culture.  We are encouraged to resist those who would impose a culture on us; to exercise our freedom of choice.  Choose the lifestyle that suits you.  Your lifestyle is non-negotiable.
  • They are also told that their own lifestyles do not impact those of others.  Democratic dignity means that each of us can choose freely without regard for our impact on others, as they are none worth noticing.

           We are also told that every trouble is a “problem” and that problems can be “fixed” b             “solutions.  

  • It follows that if climate change is a problem, then fix it.  Of course I want it fixed.  They should do it.

MTI cultures have evolved in ways which almost certainly set them up for failure. 

And, they will not likely figure this out in time to make the differences which need to be made because they are systemically superficial and averse to sustaining the kinds of deep explorations which would reveal and undercut the foundations of MTI cultures. 

  • Besides, there is a trillion dollar global advertising industry which conveys and reinforces the main messages of MTI culture; messages which are also reinforced in most of our institutions from churches to schools to corporations, to novels and movies.  Don’t be surprised if contrary voices, while permitted, are drowned out.


In MTI cultures, lifestyles are a matter of personal choice.  Worse, we also know that lifestyles cannot fundamentally alter the historic course of a culture which exemplifies a form of civilization.  Lifestyles bounce off MTI cultures like rubber bullets off an M16 tank.  Yet, we claim to be puzzled when new and desirable lifestyles do not take hold.  How can we question and transcend MTI cultures which have formed us and whose scripts we are, largely unconsciously, acting out?  


Do we need to pursue fresh understandings of our situation that lie beyond the MTI ways of knowing and responding to reality?  This is not a journey of “choosing a new lifestyle.”


  • The term ‘lifestyles’ is too embedded in the MTI form of civilization which now dominates the planet – the very form of civilization that is the root of our troubles.  Any action on our part that reinforces MTI cultures is not helpful.  It implies that we are not in the business of fixing or redeeming MTI cultures.  The core insight is that they have become lethal to life.  Rather, we need to be making it clear just what MTI cultures are, how and why they are the root source of our troubles and how and why we now need to transcend them at every scale from the uniquely personal to the civilizational. We should focus on “cultures”, and at a lower level of generality “sub-cultures”, and at a higher level of generality “forms of civilization.”  We need these categories if we are to make the point that the new work of humankind is to transcend the very culture which has formed most of us.


Vonnegut in his novel, Galapagos addressed this by devolution. But, more substantive approach came out in the 60’s and 70’s as represented by George Land’s insightful volume, Grow or Die, which, in part, suggested that a growth curve, using a variance of Perez’s theory, does not have to be measured in technical/economic terms but, perhaps in the form of “spiritual” growth or similar. More importantly each stage of growth starts while the current stage is leveling or in decline. More interestingly, Land’s model says that humans need to “grow” or die, so if the current move forward fails, humans will fall back to a prior growth stage creating the familiar hysteresis loop which is a death spiral. This is a major fear that is impelling the current pattern, perhaps more than any belief in an alternative, and, creating a paralysis that denies “logical” arguments.


Thus, the change may be manifest as with the movements such as at Zuccotti or the rising “youth” movements as we saw at COP26 (this is not  single or fully cohesive, but emergent). But, in evolution, not every emergent will survive whether technical, biological or spiritual. To paraphrase, when Nature created humans, she took a chance, intelligence might not be a survival characteristic. MTI might be such a characteristic, or will those emerging be guaranteed of surviving and maturing. The universe and earth, in particular, are littered with evidence from the creation and death of stellar objects to the current crisis.


  • The finance sector is driving many responses. Some of this was articulated at COP26 and also finds expression at the NY stock exchange when NAC, natural asset companies, go public. As the TNI and the SCNCC network has argued, change the finance not the climate.

What has not been articulated is the public/private relationships such as whose capital and who securitizes and how (risks, liabilities, etc)

We see this in the analysis of the Biden BBB bill that is being stripped of all progressive elements and finance favoring the “1%”.

New York, London and the Bourse need to be an integral part but they need to be held accountable and actionable. Citizens need to be at the table before the global assets are either rendered destroyed or privatized and the planet is further in debt than it is currently. 


  • “Though the financial sector is a key driver of this late modern condition, it is also the most vulnerable major subsystem in our complex civilization (Taleb 2007), since the subjectivity with which it operates relies on a shared sense of continuing future growth that now seems objectively unlikely. The current crisis of costly-to-produce North American shale oil tells us that we can be pretty sure that some nonlinearity – some tipping point, is nearing where the aggregate financial return on investment meets the aggregate energy return on energy invested, prompting another gyration in the overall system tied to the shutting down of credit and the threat of collapse of the financial sector. Though we see through a glass darkly, given trends in overall net energy of fossil and renewable fuels, we can expect ahead some sort of tumultuous, uneven panorama of Tainteresque simplification. With it will likely be a relaxation of hyper-accelerated financial time, opening up new spaces and time-scapes for change in the margins and interstices of global capitalism.” 


Possible Steps for the financial sector:


1) better regulation- There is a move to create measures for “greenwashing” and other abuses


2) Public ownership in patents and related. The US government allows universities to keep the rights from patents obtained thru government funded research. It was just announced that Moderna, with its sole product, Covid vaccine, is filing patents excluding US participation but having provided 19B or so to fund its development. There is the cliche, private sector takes the rewards and the public takes the losses. Regardless of other efforts, this goes a long way to reduce the fiscal divide and mitigates other regulatory vehicles in the finance sector. Alaska’s citizens’ benefits based on oil revenues and that in Norway are examples.


3) (or 2b) Regulate financing of sovereign finance, particularly for EM and DC countries which, currently is dominated by the “Washinngton Consensus” where countries can destroy their social system and control over resources in case of defaults (Greece is the current example and so is Ecuador with oil concessions).


4) Global agreements taxing finance across countries with appropriate monitoring and disclosure


The economy of financial and production capital is tied to technical innovation (Perez defines 5 stages occurring in 40-60 year intervals) where each stage is defined as progress in the form of growth which humans are tuned to believe as the measure of success. 


1)  the development of a variety of indices other than GDP are an effort to redefine “growth” (GPI, Happiness, etc) is one part


2) The current efforts to de-dollarize the global economy of which cryptocurrency is one path.

Several paths provide opportunities for global communities to share in the benefits of increasing knowledge and decouples this from “growth” of the bio/physical type which is pillaging the resources of the planet in exchange for a dematerialized growth.


  • Margaret Mead’s famous quote “Never Doubt That A Small Group Of Thoughtful Committed Citizens Can Change The World: Indeed It’s The Only Thing That Ever Has.
    Mead describes system change. This is a trajectory where a small, committed group strategically targets systemic changes that remove the need for everybody to burn attention and willpower every morning when they shower. This small, committed group might target lawmakers to change legislation regulating appliance efficiency for example, or building airtightness, or fuel efficiency standards. A small group can change the system that everybody else operates in. 



“Individual actions” 

An ecosystem that typically follows a trajectory:


  • Communications, eg. “Using energy causes climate change. Hot water heaters use lots of energy, so taking shorter showers is good for the climate. If everybody took showers that were five minutes shorter we would emit XX tonnes fewer GHGs.”


  • Education eg. The subject audience is exposed to the communication about shorter showers, and receives and understand the communication


  • Values eg. The subject audience is persuaded of the truth and importance of the communications, which changes their values concerning shower length


  • Behavior Change eg. The subject audience devotes attention and willpower to stepping out of the delicious cascade of hot water, perhaps aided by a little plastic shower timer. 


Since individual actions tend to have such tiny impacts, the strategies rely on mass adoption. “If everybody took shorter showers…”

Mass adoption is not a small group of thoughtful people, it is by definition a huge group, perhaps as large as Every Human on the Planet. 


This assumed trajectory of behavior is wrong, so this approach typically fails. The assumptions built into the tactic are wrong, since there is no way everybody is going to take shorter showers, so the approach also fails. It also burns attention and requires considerable willpower, which are finite and then cannot be used towards more impactful tactics, which is perhaps the worst failure of all. 



In some cases, the small committed group can usefully demonstrate the change proposed will not cause the end of civilization. So, people ride bikes to work, which proves that people can ride bikes to work, which is used to justify building bike lanes so more people will ride bikes to work. But this is not always the case. We don’t need the pilot project to prove that a more efficient refrigerator keeps food cold. Nobody cares if their fridge uses less electricity—their interaction with their refrigerator does not change at all. In this case, the small committed group is bureaucrats changing the regulations—this is not at all what is thought of when we say “individual actions”.


  • Climate advocates could be better practitioners of what they preach—but this just proves the individual action model is completely wrong. This is a group of people that undeniably have strong values to reduce climate chaos, and who are literally paid to devote their attention to this issue—and even they cannot succeed. They are humans beings that, like the rest of us, cannot function under this Cartesian model of human behavior. They need supportive systems that do not require burning attention and willpower. 


  • Is pushing for individual action more likely to be successful than pushing for system change? 

Some would argue we need to do both. But the reality is that resources are limited and (as with physical and planetary resources) should not be wasted. 

Rarely have people historically changed their entire culture and way of being voluntarily. Instead, if we take a historical materialist understanding we will see that shifting material constraints (let’s say, the supply chain crisis, for example) will force people into altered consumer habits. It is at this point of disruption in “normal” habits where people are most malleable and open to alternative ways of being/living

  • “Individual” and “system” changes are deeply intertwined and “pushing for individual action” is in fact “pushing for system change” and vice versa – if we are talking about changes in consumption patterns. For example, if someone is calling for a (collective) reduction in private flights, calling them unnecessary, wasteful, or unethical, this person is, in fact, working towards a collective change in social norms, values, aspirations, etc. related to private flights. Therefore this person is working on systemic change in this domain.

Changes in taxes, prices, airport expansion schemes, etc. are necessary to achieve any tangible change, but these also depend on the prevalent norms, values, aspirations among those who have power, those who elect them, and activists who push for change outside of the electoral system.


  • Demanding behavior change from individuals whose livelihoods depend on using much energy for necessities (e.g. driving to get to work where there is no alternative mode of transport) might be unethical and counter-effective, but not all actions of individuals are of this kind. It is then quite important to be able to distinguish situations of carbon lock-in from other kinds of situations, or necessary from luxury consumption, but the false dichotomy of “individual” vs. “systemic” is not helpful here.


If by “system change” one means a complete overhaul of the socio-economic-political system towards one that (be it post-capitalism, post-growth, eco-socialism, etc.) it too requires “pushing for individual action” for multiple reasons, including learning to live in a different reality that would emerge from such system change or revealing the deeply problematic character of the current mode of living, which can motivate political action.


  • Perhaps individual action can (also) be viewed as testing, experimentation and/or preparation.  That is, it provides an opportunity for people to get a feel for what reduced consumption and related strategies entail.  That in turn gives them a more grounded sense of the task ahead and what they are calling on others to do when the strategies are scaled up.  Also, if/when mandatory changes are imposed through policy,  such “experiments” provide clues—in some cases—for means of complying with the new requirements.  If a carbon tax is enacted and various forms of consumption become more expensive, some people will (already) have ideas about how live differently because of their experiences.


  • There are 3  drivers of individual behaviour change:


Conscious choice

Social context

Physical context


Conscious choice is the highly cognitively demanding approach that involves lots of communication, education, analysis etc. 

Social choice is best thought of as contagious behaviour, this is flocking behaviour. As a response to our serious cognitive limits, we outsource decision-making to other people, and heavily weight certain social groups. 

And then there is behaviour when we simply respond to our physical context. For example, if the door opens by pushing, then 100% of the time we open the door by pushing on it. There is no interaction with conscious or social choice. If the escalator is going down we ride the escalator down, there is no conscious or social choice. 

When we see a speed-limit sign and worry about getting a fine for speeding, that is conscious choice. Most of our highway driving is flocking behaviour, we drive as the group around us is driving.  We respond to the physical design of the road. If the road is wide and straight, we drive fast. If it is narrow and curvy, we slow down. If we change the building code to require all entrance doors to push in, we could change the door opening behaviour of 100% of the people, and would not need to educate any of them, or talk to them in any way. The only conscious behaviour required is of the people who change the building code, so a handful of people can change the behaviour of millions of other people. 


  • We can try to use communications to convince people to pay attention to using less energy, such as when washing clothes. This is not going to work very well. We have very limited and weak social context to manipulate for laundry choices. Social context is always VERY hard to manipulate, but laundry is something you do alone in your house, not socially, so the levers are very weak.  We could design the machine to have large, illuminated Eco Wash button, and to maybe put the regular wash button behind a door. This is a behavoiural nudge by changing the physical context. Or we could just require all washers to have nothing but Eco Wash. This would be system change. No education is required, and it is not really entangled with individual behaviour. The person doing the laundry just pushed the button, just like they always have. But the washer is designed to be more efficient. 


  • Transportation is another one. Urban zoning has created a situation where too many people are driving too much. So, we try to improve transit. We remove parking spots and replace them with bike lanes. These are all changes to the physical context. The system change is mixed zoning, walkable communities. 


  • In Response to Climate Change, Citizens in Advanced Economies Are Willing To Alter How They Live and Work


For this report, we conducted nationally representative Pew Research Center surveys of 16,254 adults from March 12 to May 26, 2021, in 16 advanced economies. All surveys were conducted over the phone with adults in Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. In the United States, we surveyed 2,596 U.S. adults from Feb. 1 to 7, 2021. Everyone who took part in the U.S. survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel.