Recently my facebook feed has seen quite a few articles shared that have a message along the lines of “Going vegetarian/vegan is the most impactful thing an individual can do against climate change”. The main point of these articles is that the meat (and dairy and egg) industry contributes significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 but also e.g. methane) from human activity, more so than another large contributor, transportation. And these are the factors that an individual can have a direct impact on; by not eating meat, you decrease the demand for it, and so less of it will be produced. I’m not going into the validity of these claims here. They make sense, and I’m sure that if you don’t think it’s true you can find these articles and their sources yourself. I want to write about something else.
A typical comment I see when these articles are shared (from strangers or from friends when I shared one of these articles), is the following: “Significant greenhouse gas emission happens on a large scale, done by large companies an the government. My individual impact is negligible and on top of that, we should hold these companies and the government responsible for solving this problem, not individuals.” I agree that we need systemic change, and that turning off the lights when you leave the house isn’t going the save the world, but boys and girls, and people who don’t identify as either, and people who identify as both, do I disagree with these statements.
It is such a massive illusion to believe that anything is ever going to change if you put the responsibility of effecting this change with the government and with companies. Government and companies do not exist, at least not as entities that can pilot spaceship Earth. They are just emergent entities that react to the collection of choices made by individuals. Let me explain what I mean, starting with this diagram:
I’ve just sketched out what I think are the main ways in which these three groups, individuals, companies, and government, affect each other. Now there’s probably more going on there, but the main point is that they are connected. All of these have an effect on the world and a change in either of them can cause a change in the others. However, I would argue that the only one capable of actively changing their mind, to be the starting point of the change we want to see in the world, are the people. Let me go into some more detail about why I think we can not hold companies, or the government, responsible.
Companies have to make money. If they wouldn’t make money, they wouldn’t exist in the first place. (The only exception being for example charitable institutes, but those are basically a group of people changing the world in a somewhat organised way). It’s probably true that for most companies, making money is also the driving force, but even if the company’s leaders have other goals in mind as well, it still has to be geared towards making money. Why? It’s like natural selection, the genes that are good for reproducing themselves are the genes that will make it to the next generation. Companies that make money are the ones that have the means to keep doing what they are doing, and grow to do more of what they are doing. If a company optimizes for something else and makes a loss, they have to downscale until eventually, they will have to sell out or go bankrupt or in any case, stop what they are doing.
So say you are the CEO of a company, let’s say one that produces frozen foods. You are concerned about the environment, and you know that your animal products have a much larger impact on global warming than any of the other products, so you decide to switch to alternative meat products. However, you have to invest in developing the recipes and changing the production line to suit the new products. Your market research also shows that meat alternatives are not as popular as animal products, and people aren’t willing to pay as much for them. Basically, it would mean profits would go down. If you enact this change, your company wouldn’t be able to grow anymore, maybe you have to scale down even, and besides, the shareholders get upset because you aren’t making as much of a profit as you could do. Your competitors fill the gap in the market you left, and you aren’t as significant an influence anymore as you used to be.
Sure it’s possible that you figure out a way to make the non-meat products more profitable, and maybe you even find a greater demand for them than you expected. There actually is a huge market for fake meat products and your company thrives on it. You, and the company as an entity, end up having a larger influence on the food production of the world. But this change wasn’t instigated by the company, it was a reaction to the changing demand for alternative meat products. The company is always locked in by the arrows entering it: demand from people, and laws, subsidies and taxes that the government puts upon it.
The change in demand is what made this change on the worlds possible, and this of course, is a consequence of people deciding that they prefer fake meat to real meat. They could of course have many reasons for doing so (and indeed there are many reasons to avoid animal products), but the point is that they are the ones with the freedom to make a choice. This power is what makes them responsible. In our example as we are seeing in reality also (at least in the UK), it is the people that decided now would be a good time for spaceship Earth to go a little more vegan, and the companies that reacted.
Much like companies, governments exist in a natural selection-like system. Only for politicians, it’s not money, but votes and backup from their political party or allies that keeps them in power. Simply put, the politician who makes the most popular decisions gets the most votes, and will get the most power to make more of these decisions. Obviously this is not a perfect system, since voters aren’t perfectly informed on the politicians’ decisions, and not everybody votes. So let’s limit this statement to whatever politician seems to act most according to the voters will (give or take some personal preference based on other things like the politician’s gender or what accent they have), will gain power/stay in power. Therefore, politicians are forced to act in a way that they think will give them the most votes or party support.
If you want to become a politician to combat global warming, you will have to find people that want to put you in power to do that. If you are an election candidate and you want to win the elections so that you can enact your plans to reduce greenhouse gas emission, you just have to hope that people vote for your plans. If your plans are not popular enough, you will have to focus on that; inform people on global warming, argue for taking action and convincing people of your plans. Again, the change starts when people change their minds.
You can do whatever you want, basically. I mean, you are bound by physics, sure. And you have to take care of yourself mentally and physically, of course. There are laws that you have to live by and there is only so much you can do with whatever limited resources you have. If only your local store would have more fake meat products on sale it would be easier to have them more often. But remember, you are always deciding what the world looks like, whenever you spend money, whenever you vote or whenever you affect other people’s decisions by spreading your opinion. Even if it seems like you can only have the smallest effect on the largest problems, remember that you are the only one who can really start to change the world.
Thanks for reading! Just as a note, these are all just my thoughts based on my understanding of the world. I probably made a lot of mistakes! However, I figured, I have given it some thought and that’s more than most people who write things on the internet do, so even though I don’t feel justified in writing an opinionated piece like this, I did it anyway.
One more thing, it can feel absolutely horrifying to take responsibility for anything, especially if that thing is the whole world and everybody on it. I for one, applaud anyone for trying, even if you only have the smallest change of success, it’s worth it.