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I admire people who do not eat meat, do not drive cars, and do not take airplane travel. These restraints indicate strong self-discipline and strong dedication to saving our planet from environmental disaster.

I have none of these virtues. I eat a lot of chicken, some seafood and occasional servings of beef. I do a lot of bike riding, but I drive a car for large grocery shopping trips, visits with distant friends and transporting heavy loads.  I am certainly not a jet-setter, but my wife and I take yearly airplane trips to visit our daughter in Alaska and to see sick or dying relatives who live far from Colorado.

Despite these derelictions, I am enormously worried about climate change and devote a lot of energy to building a movement focused on saving our planet from environmental disaster. I am not proud of the above delinquencies, but I view them (perhaps self-servingly) as ecologically inconsequential. I would willingly (indeed, gladly) abandon all these indulgences as part of a collective policy to diminish meat consumption, contract car driving and shrink airplane travel. Although I admire people able to regulate their individual activities on behalf of the environment, I appreciate people dedicated to building the environmental movement even more.

My thinking on these matters is influenced by the conviction that promoting individual responsibility is not a viable way of coping with the dire emergency of climate change. Indeed, the emphasis on individual responsibility can be a two-edged sword. I recently encountered an article entitled, “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle,” by Mary Heglar, a staunch climate change advocate, which expresses my own views on the subject.

Heglar writes in her story for Vox:

“While we’re busy testing each other’s purity, we let the government and industries — the authors of said [climate change] devastation — off the hook completely. This overemphasis on individual action shames people for their everyday activities, things they can barely avoid doing because of the fossil fuel-dependent system they were born into. In fact, fossil fuels supply more than 75 percent of the U.S. energy system.”

A venerable corporate strategy for evading ecological responsibility entails designating individual behavior as both the cause and the solution to environmental problems. The corporate message is change yourself, but do not change the system. Recent publicity campaigns by Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum and other fossil-fuel corporations exemplify such greenwashing propaganda.

The problem of waste proliferation provides a revealing historical example of how corporations use of the individual responsibility strategy to deflect blame and protect profits:

“The American Can Company, the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, the Dixie Cup Company, and other throw-away products manufacturers organized the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) campaign. The centerpiece of the organization’s strategy was its great cultural invention: litter. The industries were not the problem: Individuals were to blame for improper disposal of trash,” Aviva Chomsky writes on page 61 of Beacon Press’ “Is Science Enough?”

Corporations that harm the environment typically claim they are simply responding to consumer demand and should not be faulted for producing what the public wants. But these same corporations produce not only detrimental commodities, but also the desire and often the practical necessity of possessing these commodities. An economic system with far less aggregate consumption is feasible, necessary, and surely more satisfying than inequality accelerating, climate destroying corporate capitalism.

Individuals able to forsake meat, automobiles and air travel should continue to do so. However, these admirable personal actions are by no means sufficient. Committed environmentalists must also transform these individual behaviors into collectively mandated social policies.

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