How to take action that does more than just make you feel better
When talking to environmentalists, I often come across discussions of the value of individual action. The question is framed a number of ways:
- Which is better, individual action or collective action?
- Can individual action succeed without cooperation from governments and leaders?
- Is there any point in individual action?
- Are we just supposed to passively wait around for the collective? What about our agency?
This question doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. You can’t have one without the other, because every collective is made up of individuals. Any collective change that happens is coming from (some of) them.
And if you are planning to take action, the question of whether to take ‘individual’ action is moot. It’s not like you have the choice not to be an individual.
I believe what people are really asking is slightly different.
They want to know if their efforts will be purely performative. They’re worried the actions they could take — making lifestyle changes, signing petitions, going to protests —won’t have any effect other than making themselves feel better.
In my opinion, the difference is not in the choice of action itself. Successful movements are built out of sharing messages, including the very activities we sometimes dismiss as ineffective.
What outcome are we aiming for?
Social change often happens through social tipping points (the concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book).
A tipping point is the colloquial term for a phase transition, or the phenomenon where incremental changes in a system reach a critical threshold, leading to rapid transformation.
Social change has always been sudden and nonlinear. Think of the changes we’ve witnessed in our own lives, like changing opinions toward smoking, the emergence of the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and rise of support for Ukraine. Public opinion changed slowly, then all at once.
The term ‘phase transition’ originally referred to matter changing phases, like water turning to ice. The interesting thing is where the ice starts — it’s not like one corner turns to ice and the change spreads from there. Instead, it happens locally, through a process called nucleation. Small particles of ice form all over the material, and grow until everything is ice.
I believe this is how the climate movement grows. It’s not one silver bullet that fixes everything, but accelerating changes originating in multiple parts of society. Grassroots movements around the world, speaking up where they are most likely to be heard, and coordinating among each other.
If this is the outcome we are hoping for, we can see a hint at what makes individual actions effective: when they create the conditions for social tipping points.
You’re still one person, but your actions are a part of a ripple effect spreading through the whole social system.
If you are taking action on any scale, that is already valuable, because it’s a step in the journey. However, if you have the capacity and are looking for ways to amplify your results, here are the 3 C’s that I believe make the difference.
C for Coordination
There’s a difference between writing a letter at random and participating in a letter campaign. There’s a difference between “trying to shop greener” and taking part in an organized boycott.
That difference is the first C: Coordination.
Without it, we are all participating in a million boycotts at once, and canceling out our efforts as we start and fall off when they get difficult to maintain.
But when we coordinate our efforts, we get unprecedented outcomes like over a 1000 companies ending operations in Russia in mere months. It’s because coordination brings other things with it, like focus, passion, and media attention.
What that means for us is that we need to find campaigns (whether they are calls, letters, or boycotts) and join them.
The best way to do that is to find a climate organization that aligns with your priorities, and sign up to its email list. (This can be a task in itself, but it gets easier once you’re plugged into that ecosystem. I’ve written about how to get started here.)
That way we are throwing our efforts behind a viable engine.
And we can amplify those efforts with the second ‘C’…
C for Communication
When you find a method of action that works, share it! You spent the effort to sift through opportunities and make them work. Let that effort benefit someone in similar circumstances: equally busy, with similar skills or misgivings. Friends, family, people at your meetup groups. There’s someone in your circle who wants to do more, and you are the right messenger.
Anand Giridharadas writes that progressives need to be more “small-e evangelical” about our causes. Talking about climate change has been an awkward taboo for too long. Let’s replace the outdated cultural narrative on climate change with a new, better one! To do that, we need to each be conduits for good ideas to spread.
And one of those good ideas? A clear picture of what we are working toward. That brings us to the last ‘C’ …
C for (theory of) Change
Visualizing success is all the rage. While I’m not a fan of the excesses of ‘manifesting’ culture, there’s no denying that knowing what you are aiming for provides clarity, and there is a clear need for it in the climate movement.
We’re often cautious to stake a claim about the future, because, of course, predicting the future is impossible. I’m rather afraid of making predictions myself, whether rosy or apocalyptic.
None the less, to be strategic in our actions, we need to imagine the small, intermediate outcomes we are seeking. Such as, a regulation being passed in your city, adoption rates for solar panels going up, your company reducing its emissions year-over-year.
A theory of change is a method that explains how a given intervention, or set of interventions, is expected to lead to specific development change, drawing on a causal analysis based on available evidence.
On a personal scale, we might do this more informally. We need to be clear on the mechanism by which we expect our actions to improve the global response to climate change.
We often have a vague idea of how our actions help. You might be surprised at what a difference it makes to think through the details of how we can influence specific outcomes.
The exact results or numbers may be hard to calculate, but they don’t matter. We only need to compare the actions we have available. Our best guess at the results is good enough for identifying which actions are worth pursuing and cutting out the distractions.
With the climate crisis, the problems facing us are vast, but so are the numbers of people who want to solve them. The key is to line up and amplify their efforts.
Coordination, Communication, and (theory of) Change: these are the three factors that turn your individual efforts into a solid building block of the kind of movement we need.