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The Power Of You: How Individual Action Can Help Save The Planet

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen, the co-author of "The Spirit Almanac," and the author of "Return to Nature" (Spring 2022).
The Power of You: Why individual habits matter when it comes to saving the planet
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For those working in the climate space, 2050 is a year that breeds both hope and horror. That's the cutoff point when we need to stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere to have a fighting chance of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F) and avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of global warming, according to the U.N.

A new path forward.

This week, the International Energy Agency released its road map for how we can decarbonize the world within the next 30 years. It had your classic recommendations: Policymakers need to increase clean energy investments, move away from fossil fuels, encourage carbon capture technologies, etc., all on grand, massive scales.

But it also had something you don't often see in climate reports of this scope: a call for individual action. "Achieving net-zero by 2050 cannot be achieved without the sustained support and participation from citizens," the report reads.

The authors acknowledged that while building a healthier future will take work from dirty industries (you know, the ones responsible for the vast majority of our emissions), it will also require buy-in from citizens who have the means of buying in.

"Behavioral changes, particularly in advanced economies—such as replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport, or forgoing a long-haul flight—provide around 4% of the cumulative emissions reductions in our pathway," they write.

In the climate realm, individual actions like these are often pitted against larger, more systemic changes. This report is an important reminder that both are necessary, and they ultimately inform each other.


Balancing individual action and systemic change.

In order to be model eco-friendly citizens, we need infrastructure and systems that make that lifestyle possible. We need communities optimized for people and not just cars; we need renewable energy to be available and affordable; we need food options that aren't packaged in plastic.

But the scale tips both ways: It's only by taking the smaller action of opting into these new systems and leaving old ones behind that we, as individuals, send a signal to industry that something's gotta give.

"I always think of individual action not in a vacuum but as an essential complement to more macro action, like industrial regulation and policy changes," Ashlee Piper, former political strategist and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, tells mbg. "A lot of the positive momentum we are seeking on a larger scale when it comes to government and policy and industry regulation starts with us individually."

In the meantime, as we build that momentum, the path to a more sustainable world will have its roadblocks: It might be a little more expensive and a bit more time-consuming. It's not necessarily a realistic one for those who live in underserved communities to take, which makes it all the more important for those of us who do have the option to change our ways to actually change them—and to encourage others to do the same.

We need to start by cleaning up our own impact, but we can't stop there. There's strength in numbers, after all. Going plastic-free in your household is one thing, but starting a coalition that makes plastic alternatives easier to come by? That's an action that transcends the individual and enters the realm of the collective change we'll so desperately need in the coming years.

How to consider your grander individual action.

Starting a sustainability movement sure sounds great, but how? Ultimately, Piper says it comes down to finding what you're passionate about first, and going from there.

"There are a lot of different ways people can get involved—they need to figure out what works best for them and what is most important to them."

Ready to get started? These two creative exercises can help you get clear on your potential action and area of impact.

Imagine your ideal world 20 years from now.

Sarah Jaquette Ray, Ph.D., a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt University, previously told mbg about this exercise she's done with her students to help them set long-term goals:

  1. Close your eyes and begin to visualize the year 2050. Imagine we achieved all our climate goals: The planet is a healthy, vibrant place to be.
  2. Picture somebody coming up to you and thanking you for your contribution to this new world. What is it that they're commending you for?
  3. Use this exercise to help you direct your focus and home in on the type of legacy you'd like to leave. Consider it your blueprint for action. "You can't put one foot in front of the other unless you know which direction you're going," Jaquette Ray says.

Find where your passions, skills, and happiness meet.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., a marine biologist and policy expert, recently shared this exercise on her podcast How To Save a Planet:

  1. Draw a Venn diagram with three circles.
  2. Label them "What am I good at?" "What is the climate work that needs doing?" and "What brings me joy?"
  3. Fill out the circles, and find where they overlap: That's the area to start focusing your attention and building your coalition. "Don't leave out joy!" Johnson writes of the exercise on Instagram. "For this is the work of our lifetimes, and it need not be an endless slog. May each of us spend as many minutes at the epicenter of our Venn diagram as possible."

Even the grandest changes can usually be traced back to one person. Which one will you inspire?

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