This Earth Day, Let’s Focus on Institutional Change

On April 22nd, it’s Earth day, which gives us a chance to celebrate our Earth and have a greater understanding of what needs to be done to protect it. The right information about what we need to do and how we need to act is out there. However, the media often frame it in such a way to evoke emotion rather than action out of us.

These type of reports usually stem from academic papers, information available in academic circles; something often not available to the majority of people. One such academic study shows us how dire our current consumption levels are in terms of individual number. This information leaves us perplexed, overwhelmed, or driven to action. Yet, the necessity of the issue shows us the answer lies in mass institutional change rather than relying on all individuals to necessarily change their ways. Two stems to this can be seen as fighting a political battle for change and fighting against large businesses both obviously need different approaches. These different approaches, mean that people have an opportunity to find the right fit for them. Yet, something which should link whichever approach is ensuring people know what they are doing in the face of climate change, while still remaining somewhat optimistic in these rather bleak circumstances.

Climate change claims a lot of the headlines today, with new reports constantly altering our understanding of the issue. We simply do not know whether we are doing enough good if we separate our waste and eat vegetarian or whether there’s more, some would argue, drastic measures to cut our emissions; such as living car-free. I myself didn’t know. And then I had to read a paper that looked at emissions calculated by individuals within geographical areas. This revealed the average European emits 9 tons, which is hard to truly visualise what this ‘looks like’.

So, to put that into perspective, the amount we should be emitting is a mere 1.3 tons! This number would mean we are living within our planetary boundaries (PB). These PBs can be seen as the total amount of carbon that can be emitted if we are going to follow the Paris Climate agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 2C by 2100. This 1.3 ton is more than six times smaller than what is emitted in Europe and smaller than 10% of the 19 tons per person North America emits.

There are several ways to take this news. Denial is one option and in this era of alternative facts a very likely outcome. Secondly, there’s just pure despair that there’s clearly nothing to be done, a mountain too high to climb. This gives us the feeling that there’s not really any point in trying to change things. Thirdly, an individual can make a conscious effort to try and live within their planetary boundaries. This would be a very noble and selfless thing to do, but kinda pointless unless everyone else on Earth had the same attitude. This leaves us pondering if not every single person in the world adopts this approach, where should we put our energy into instead to try and get us out of this mess?

This calls for a form of activism that pushes for institutional change. This means finding the best ways in which pressure can be put on governments and other institutions to bring about actual, sustainable, long-lasting change. This type of change needs to empower individuals to be able to live within their planetary boundaries; and it aims to make a sustainable, less consumer-based lifestyle the norm.

In our current democratic system, governments will only start implementing radical institutional change that is desperately needed if there was a mass democratic movement asking for it. At the moment there is not a majority of people demanding these radical changes. So, if you’re wanting this change to come from a government, a good place to start is helping educate the masses about climate change. This has been tried oh so many times, with varying levels of success. It’s hard to know what the perfect formula to evoke a response out of people would be, all we know for certain is if David Attenborough is fronting the campaign it will have the best chance possible.

Regarding our planetary boundaries, we can see the third approach of trying to live within your planetary boundaries as a good educational tool for the masses. In the sense we can set an example of what living in our planetary boundaries will look like, specifically highlighting how this way of life is currently limited by the lack of institutional changes to support this lifestyle. This can take place alongside other forms of activism like putting pressure on governments to change ranging from protest and civil disobedience all the way to something as simple as who you vote for.

Similarly to governments, big companies which can also be considered major players on the national/global level will not change their ways unless they feel it is affecting their returns. This means that a similar approach to educating the masses is required, if there is a chance of them paying attention, or believing their image is being tarnished to an irreversible extent, then there will be motivation for them to change their ways. But the most important thing someone who wants to bring about genuine change can do is strictly boycott products that are environmentally unfriendly or being produced by companies not taking steps to produce within their planetary boundaries. Alternatively, individuals can see themselves as having a level of responsibility of not working for companies that convey practices that contribute to climate change. It can be hard enough to find a job nowadays as it is, thus a person should never feel this decision of who you work for should be taken over your own wellbeing diminishing.

An effect on your wellbeing is one risk involved with this activism, another is of going too far down this path of sharing your activism, and becoming overly-preachy, to the extent that you put people off your cause more than getting them involved in it.

I honestly do not know what to suggest in this sense, I find it near enough impossible to ever post anything on social media regarding causes I honestly believe in, so I feel a bit hypocritical telling people to preach it from the rooftops that we’re living well outside our planetary boundaries. So, perhaps, this is simply a case of “you do you”. In the sense that, wherever you share your interests and passions in life, there is a responsibility to put planetary boundaries and the ways in which we are trying to live within them at the forefront.

For your own wellbeing, it is best to remain optimistic in this ongoing and laborious process. There is a certain level of absurdity in suggesting optimism after being given the stark facts. It seems the best place to start then, is finding the right fit for yourself in this battle. By this, I mean working out what part you can play on this global stage. One of the silver linings of the catastrophic size of climate change is that there are lots of avenues to fight against it that need to be taken. On Earth Day, perhaps it is time to find a career, become an activist, speak out politically, or anything in between that promotes this knowledge of planetary boundaries and bring about the necessary institutional change.