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the green movement part two: system change or behaviour change

  • by JW

“The climate movement has been riven lately by a debate pitting individual lifestyle change against systemic change, as if the two compete. Many experts contend both are needed, and new research links them even more closely.”


There is a very strong current in the ‘green movement’ that it’s the system itself which we live under which is destroying the planet – which pretty much summarises the ‘deep green’ perspective:

the green movement part one: deep green – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Which means some are calling for ‘system change’:

Climate change requires system change |

And there’s been quite an exchange following a report on Radio 4’s PM programme – and as shared on the VGS social media over the weekend:

BBC Radio 4 – 🚗 🥒 🚲 This is useful. On Evan Davis’ Climate… | Facebook

The problem is that most people are not up for ‘system change’.


Others would say it’s not the point:

Why Systemic Change Won’t Solve Climate Change

We need specific solutions, not vague calls for change.

Many call for “system change” as the solution to the climate emergency. Climate strikes call for complete system change. Investors and business groups call for system change investing. In response to a report’s question about what system change meant, Greta Thunberg demanded Germany revise its plans for producing fossil fuels.

But calling for system change is simply not enough given the urgency of the moment. Focusing on system change might even delay decarbonization. We have so little time to start reducing emissions.

At this late stage of the climate emergency, calling for system change feels too slow. It also feels like a slightly insidious negative feedback process of the carbon system, a process that prevents the system from changing by presenting the appearance of change. And, despite it coming from the mouths of some of today’s most respected activists, calling for system change might even be the next stage of carbon power’s long-running delay strategy.

Why Systemic Change Won’t Solve Climate Change | by Nicholas Poggioli | Climate Conscious | Medium

Here’s the view from the business stalwart Forbes – which actually suggests more of us would be prepared for some sort of ‘system change’:

Greta Is Right: Study Shows Individual Lifestyle Change Boosts Systemic Climate Action

The climate movement has been riven lately by a debate pitting individual lifestyle change against systemic change, as if the two compete. Many experts contend both are needed, and new research links them even more closely. The public is more likely to support systemic action, the study finds, if those advocating it have a low carbon footprint.

It is really important that scientists, or other messengers who communicate with the public, model those behaviors that reduce carbon emissions to drive their point home,” one of the authors, Professor Elke Weber, said in an interview released yesterday by Princeton University.Our new research showed that the carbon footprints of those communicating the science not only affects their credibility, but also affects audience support for the public policies for which the communicators advocated,” said Weber, the associate director for education at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

The study, titled “Climate change communicators’ carbon footprints affect their audience’s policy support,” may explain why Greta Thunberg has succeeded more than others at communicating the climate crisis and galvanizing social action. Thunberg has insisted on individual change—and modeled it—while advocating systemic change.

The implications of these results are stark,” the authors write in the journal Climatic Change. “Effective communication of climate science and advocacy of both individual behavior change and public policy interventions are greatly helped when advocates lead the way by reducing their own carbon footprint.”

Greta Is Right: Study Shows Individual Lifestyle Change Boosts Systemic Climate Action

Many have been saying that we can ‘learn from the pandemic’ – with this report from India:

Individual action versus systemic change: lessons from COVID19 for climate change

Just because individual action doesn’t tangibly move the needle on unprecedented challenges doesn’t mean they are not meaningful.The scale of the problem seems difficult to grasp, impossible to overcome, and induces in us anger, fear, anxiety, grief, and despair. However, these paralysing emotions can be balanced by finding individual purpose and hope, both key to emotional coping for climate change. Of course we must continue to push for systemic solutions: demanding our governments invest in production systems that emit less and proactive adaptation for those most at risk. But we must also recognise the role individual actions play…

The efficacy of individual actions as measured in CO2 emissions reduced, can seem miniscule, laughably modest. Yes, individual action alone will not push the needle on climate change and the scientific evidence converges to highlight that unprecedented, cross-sectoral systemic change is imperative to meet a 1.5C target. But when we measure the true value of individual actions – how they can help us make sense of grave long-term challenges, how they can make the distant and intangible personal, how they make us feel part of a collective whole, and how they can help provide meaning in the face of seemingly unsurmountable targets, their importance becomes clearer.

Moving forward on an agenda of hope

Making sense of the grand challenges we face in highly personal, individualised ways; and believing that our actions, minute though they may be, will accrue in ways we may not always be able to quantify is critical. For problems like climate change that require collective action, hope acts as a “distinct motivator to support goal-consistent action, particularly when the odds of success are low”. And individual actions, modest as they might be, can become precursors of wider change; critical levers to incentivise climate action.

When we choose to maintain social distance, we tell each other, when faced with an unprecedented challenge, each of us will try to do our bit. When we self-organise to feed stranded migrants in our city we signal to one another that if the system fails, individuals will stand up to shoulder burdens, as best as we can. And so it is, when we fly less, we indicate our concern and the possibility of change. When we eat green, we inspire a few others to try. These gestures of what we value can shift the normative needles a society lives by. And that, though small, is a start.

Individual action versus systemic change: lessons from COVID19 for climate change | Behavioural and Social Sciences at Nature Research