First off, you, as an individual, are not remotely responsible for climate change. Every person in the United States could go vegan or flexitarian, start biking to work, and set up communal compost bins, and we would still be—scientifically speaking—screwed. Corporations would continue to spew greenhouse gases, led by multinationals like ExxonMobil and BP. People would go on buying carbon-intensive things and flying in planes as they always have. Without massive policy and technological shifts, the world would go on burning—perhaps slightly less quickly than before—and the meme-slash-truism about how there's no ethical (or climate-neutral) consumption under capitalism would still be true.
Yet we must imagine a hypothetical country made sustainable by the Green New Deal. And within that reality, our current plastic-tossing, oil-dependent, meat-devouring lifestyles will be unimaginable. It's time to start shifting toward more sustainable lifestyles—now.
The very foundations of the way we live will change under a Green New Deal—a splendid realization, in the right context. Free of poverty and of the energy sources that are choking and killing us, the future for the climate, and for individuals, could begin to look bright and stable. The upshot is that the Green New Deal will ultimately make us happier, even if we have to change our lifestyles. As Kate Aronoff observes at The Intercept, the policies laid out in the GND will likely lead to people working less and socializing more: "It's about building a society that makes a low-carbon and altogether happier life possible for everyone"—so it's not about making an overall sacrifice, she argues. (Of course, we'll have to give some things up, which is hard to accept even when other parts of our lives will become much better.)
The U.S. under a Green New Deal will look vastly different from what it looks like now, and to say that people will have to adjust is putting it mildly. We'll need to eat much, much less meat than the average 222 pounds that each American consumes in a year, if we have any hope of shuttering factory farms, which produce meat in such volumes that it remains relatively cheap and widely available. If we reduce urban sprawl—an essential initiative that's missing from the current text of the GND—public transportation will slowly replace cars as our primary mode of travel. Further, air travel within the U.S. will become outmoded as clean, energy-efficient high-speed rail is laid down across the country.
None of these things is bad. Those who rail against the GND may seek to stoke fears by warning that the GND will take away your hamburgers; let them rail. Drastically reducing our beef consumption would decrease the risk of heart disease. Densification will reduce commutes. And the prospect of fast, efficient train travel seems more relaxing and serene than any plane ride I've ever been on.
Making adjustments in your daily life now will also prepare you for some of the big changes that are coming, and that may come abruptly. And acting in more climate-conscious ways can provide a signal to others in your life, empowering them with the knowledge that they can do something about it too.
Social norms have to shift in order for the green energy transition to go smoothly, and there are ways to make that happen on an individual level, despite what the fatalists might argue. Even though many of our consumption habits are determined by government policy and corporate maneuvering, things like vegetarianism (which I bring up often because our diets are one of the main behaviors that will have to massively change under a GND), for instance, have entered the mainstream in spite of the massive lobbying power of the meat industry.
What's more, so-called environmentally friendly choices like going vegetarian or reducing consumption can be ways to naturally work climate change into a conversation with a climate-agnostic person in your life. A 2018 poll by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University reports that one of the most common reasons people don't talk about climate change is that it "never comes up." On top of that, a 2013 poll from the same universities found that "family and friends have the greatest ability to convince [individuals] to take action to reduce global warming."
As with voting, convincing a few friends and family members to care about climate change can feel like making a small drop in a big pool—but voting remains one of the only ways we can actually tangibly affect policy, and fixing our diets and commutes represents an important way to encourage others to follow suit, socially and politically.
The doom and gloom of climate change has paralyzed many into inaction, normalizing the bystander effect as a consequence. But as Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman note at Slate, "People don't spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water."
So maybe start cutting back on your meat consumption, and start buying used clothes or furniture. Pick up a tote bag when you go to the grocery store (if you don't already have one, you probably have a friend like me who has a ton lying around). Start a compost bin if you can. Throw your bucket of water on the fire so that others might feel moved to join you. Even inspiring one person to start taking action on climate change could be worth it—because we're going to need all we've got.
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