A recent Vox piece by NRDC staffer Mary Annaise Heglar starts with a bold headline, “I Work in the Environmental Movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The author says that when she meets people and tells them she works at an environmental organization their first reaction is to express guilt for their poor environmental performance. The article then makes the argument that individual action on the environment (e.g., recycling) is not meaningful and that the focus on individual action just make people feel guilty for their failure to protect the planet, which disempowers people from taking action to create the systemic change we need.
While it is true that we need systemic change first and foremost to address environmental challenges like the climate crisis and mass extinction at the speed and scale that is required, it is questionable that encouraging individual action on the environment somehow prevents or hinders the collective action we need. It’s often quite the opposite – people take action to green their own lives, and through this process realize that there is only so much they can do on an individual level. They then take action in their community, with corporations, and nationally with others to create systemic change. But, for many people, it all starts with those individual actions.
It’s also questionable that Americans are feeling guilty about their personal environmental actions. I’ve been working at Green America for almost 20 years, and I’ve talked to many people all over the country. When I tell them where I work, they almost never respond that they are guilty of poor environmental conduct. Almost always, they ask questions about Green America’s work and the most impactful practices they can take to create a greener planet.
That is an encouraging sign because Americans are some of the least green people on Earth. For several years, National Geographic partnered with GlobeScan to produce the GreenDex, a survey of environmental attitudes and practices in countries around the globe. The surveys consistently find that US residents are amongst the least green people on Earth in practice and feel little guilt over it. In general, the developed world’s peoples are less green than the developing world. India and China consistently have the greenest populations. If anything, we need ways to encourage individual Americans to be more green, including recycling more, since our recycling rates in the US are low compared to much of the world. And, once they increase their own recycling and question their waste, encourage them to use their voices on the local and national level to increase re-use and recycling and reduce the production of inherently harmful products, like plastic bags and water bottles.