First published: Jul 20, 2022, 11:34am EDT
Last edited: Aug 1, 2022, 1:06pm EDT

Anthropocene Calamity, part 2: Are you yelling until your voice is hoarse?

This is part 2 of an 11 part series. For the introductory post to set the tone, please see Holy shit things are super bad.

Okay, so what can the average person do about the present climate catastrophe?

First off, let’s assume that you yourself have already dramatically reduced or eliminated air travel, meat consumption (especially beef), and gasoline or other oil byproduct consumption. You are eating/shopping locally, you are biking where you can, and you are organizing your spending to cut back on your “carbon footprint” as much as possible. These are necessary things and you should do them!

That said, much of what you’ve heard you should be doing for the last 20 years is the result of a PR strategy by oil companies to redirect attention away from themselves. BP popularized the term “carbon footprint” and asked people to take responsibility for it. By shifting the conversation to personal responsibility, BP “brilliantly” constructed an environment where the spotlight was no longer pointed at real, meaningful, systemic change.

Could personal responsibility work to make a dent? As COVID19 hit us like a train in 2020, the entire world began an experiment of incredible personal sacrifice and lockdown. Travel was reduced, people stayed home, people stopped eating out, and consumer spending overall dropped sharply. You were there, I was there, it was definitely something. The year of 2020 only saw a reduction of 7% of carbon emissions. This is not enough.

More depressingly, as Kurzgesagt points out, if the average person completely ceased generating any type of carbon for the entire rest of their life, that would only account for one second of global carbon output intensity. Big oof.

Personal responsibility is insufficient here. It’s certainly necessary! We won’t save the planet if we don’t do these things! But it’s not the end of the story. The average person isn’t flaring methane pipelines! Personal responsibility doesn’t have the means to make the necessary regulatory changes to reduce the carbon intensity of, say, concrete curing or industrial farming, even if there were clear, albeit slightly more expensive, sustainable options for these things. Small changes cannot tackle extreme weather.

What needs to happen is major incentive change across the board. Every industry must reduce or be forced to reduce carbon output simultaneously, and to do that requires a widespread understanding of the urgency and magnitude of the problem and the political will to make the necessary changes and interventions.

You’ve probably heard of the Bystander Effect, which, in a time of replicability crises, has stood up remarkably well. In 1968, John Darley and Bibb Latané published a couple of amazing papers all looking at the “diffusion of responsibility” in group settings, where groups were observed to act with less overall agency than individuals. The broad repeatability of this behavior of humans is under no doubt.

One of the less well known responsibility diffusion experiments they performed concerns how humans react to fires in group settings without a fire alarm. When a group of people are in a room and smoke starts pouring in, they are less likely than an individual to do anything about it. One of the main benefits of a fire alarm (or someone else reacting) is that it gives people permission to act as if there is an emergency. Without a fire alarm, the chances of someone acting like there’s a problem are remarkably lower.

If you care about the planet, your job is to be the fire alarm. Our friends, families, neighbors, coworkers, and especially representatives need to know that shit is on fire. This is an existential threat.

Don’t worry too much about climate deniers. If someone engages you in a debate about climate change at this point, just move on. 75% of Americans believe climate change is real and happening. Of the remaining 25%, 15% are simply on the fence. The 10% that still don’t believe in it at this point are certainly noisy and obnoxious and you can just walk away. But almost 90% of Americans that either believe in it for sure or are at least considering it are looking around at the lack of fire alarm and concluding it must not be that big of a deal, right?

It is, and you need to override that lack of fire alarm.

The average person’s best move is to yell until their voice is hoarse, figuratively and literally. The intensity of all the rallies and calling representatives after the 2016 election was nothing compared to what needs to happen here. If you have one takeaway from this blog post, it’s that the level of fire we’re in requires that all of us are absolutely nuts and obnoxious, every day, to everyone, starting yesterday.

So, it’s with this context that I’m open sourcing my 2017 project that I accidentally let die, called Politivate. Here’s a separate blog post about it.

More helpfully, I would strongly encourage you to join up with a nearby Extinction Rebellion group.

You are not the average person! Make sure to check out part 3 and part 4.

Thanks to Christy Olds, Jeff Wendling, and Moby von Briesen for advice and feedback on early drafts.