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Want to Stop Wondering if your Individual Choices Matter for the Climate?

As the excitement of Earth Month continues, we want to help you feel empowered, not overwhelmed, as an individual in the environmental movement.

Published on: April 16, 2021
Exterior of 1Hotel Central Park

Climate change is perhaps the greatest existential challenge to humanity, and it’s essential that we all (individually and collectively) feel empowered to take action to preserve our planet. So what, exactly, can we do this Earth Month to feel like we’re actually making an impact as individuals? Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg recently tackled this very issue in a recent episode of their podcast, “How to Save a Planet.” In the episode, they ask: “Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?”

In other words, do our individual choices even matter when climate change is such a massive, systemic problem? Spoiler Alert: The answer is both “yes” and “no” — here’s why.

The systemic carbon footprint stomps on ours.

It’s true, the challenge of climate change is too great for any one person’s actions to correct. Dr. Johnson and Blumberg point out that there are systems within our economy that are too massive for any single individual to change. Specifically, here are the contributing sectors and the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions they account for:
1. Electricity Production: 25%
2. Food, Agriculture, and Land Use: 24%
3. Industry: 20%
4. Transportation: 15%
5. Buildings: 5%
6. Extraction, Processing, and Transportation of Fossil Fuels: 10%

So, what’s the contribution of the average individual American? A mere 0.00000003%.

As a side note, the average American’s carbon footprint is four times larger than the global average. It’s also important to note that this is a national average. Generally speaking, wealthier people emit more, and those with lower incomes emit less. These are typically marginalized communities that also bear the largest burdens of climate change and environmental harm. This scratches the surface of the reason it’s necessary to consciously promote racial and social equity throughout the environmental movement. We’ll cover this more in upcoming articles fully dedicated to the topic.

At this point, this information is enough to make any climate pessimist say, “I told you so,” and make any environmental advocate want to throw in the towel.

But this is actually good news.

Dr. Johnson, Blumberg, and their distinguished podcast guests (plus, all of us at 1 Hotels!) agree that this is a positive thing. It would be catastrophic if the solution to the climate crisis depended on convincing every single individual that they need to live a perfectly sustainable lifestyle. Instead, if we focus on fixing the systems themselves, we can achieve drastic improvements.

Plot twist: this is actually where your individual power comes in.

Individual choices can matter.

Author, strategist, and teacher, Katharine Wilkinson (featured on the podcast episode), admits that it can seem useless to put in individual effort, but in reality, it’s not. Your individual, sustainable choices and habits spark curiosity, generate awareness, and create momentum for the environmental movement.

She explains, “Anything that keeps us focused moment to moment on the world that we want to create is a good thing, right? I can't vote three times a day, but I do eat three times a day. And I think every time we do these things, it gives us a chance to reflect on our values, reflect on our connection to the planet's living systems, to think about what it is that we're trying to do here.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Once you start to think about your day-to-day actions as an example and message for others to join the movement, your individual actions are creating momentum for big, systemic change.

A specific example of this is the topic of flying in Europe. A few years ago, a movement in Europe inspired many people to reduce their air travel to decrease their impact on the climate. Climate researcher, Steve Westlake, decided to conduct a survey on this (a small study of willing participants, not a stratified random sample). He found that 75% of people he surveyed (who knew someone who gave up flying) also changed their outlook on flying and climate change. As a result, roughly 50% of these participants actually committed to flying less themselves.

This is just one example, but it sends a strong message — a message we believe in. It shows us that more and more people are interested in systemic change and that there’s power in numbers. Daily individual actions serve as a method of communication, and that communication creates a powerful ripple effect to ignite systemic change.

In fact, this concept of less flying in Europe has sparked a proposal in the UK to implement a frequent flier tax. This tax would inherently target those contributing the most to carbon emissions through flight. This is a powerful reminder that communication is key in generating systemic change, and our individual actions are critical in starting these conversations.

What can you do right now?

After reading all of that, you might still be wondering, “What does it actually look like to identify individual areas that will allow me to generate bigger changes?” It’s one thing to learn about these concepts and an entirely different challenge to practice them.

To put these concepts into practice, Dr. Johnson encourages everyone to start with a Venn diagram with three circles:

The point(s) where these three things intersect is the best place to start. After all, your sustainable journey should be sustainable for you too. In other words, it should be enjoyable and rewarding in the long term, so you’ll want to stick to it.

We’re with you.

We strive to embody these concepts at 1 Hotels. Every day, we try to make the best decisions possible for our planet and communities. Whether that looks like minimizing our energy consumption, repurposing construction materials, or finding reusable and/or compostable alternatives to everyday items — we believe our day-to-day, individual choices (as people and as a brand) are a catalyst for change.

We see our greatest potential from sharing and discussing these topics with you and inspiring you all to make choices that energize your own communities and promote environmental health. Whatever those choices may be — from your daily breakfast to the hotel you choose for your next vacation — we hope you always remember: the ripple effect starts with just one drop.

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