We all know that a range of social scales, from the individual to global institutions, matter in the context of environmental issues. But where should we put our time and energy? The EcoTypes Social Scale axis considers these choices.
- Green lifestyle changes are a better focus for our ecological energies than trying to change larger systems.
- Individual actions like recycling can actually accomplish more than collective actions like working to pass green laws.
- Individual lifestyle changes won’t make a big environmental difference; we must focus on larger social and political institutions.
- Our ecological actions must address major political and economic systems, not just changes at the individual scale.
This histogram shows the overall distribution of averaged responses, from fall 2018 to now, to the survey statements above. Which side are most responses on? Is there general agreement or disagreement among responses so far?
How do your own responses compare with these overall results? To answer this question, find the personal report you received by email and compare your average response to this axis.
Do most respondents agree with you? Disagree with you? Are most responses to the right or the left of you? What does this say about your responses as compared with overall responses?
A great deal of mainstream environmentalism stresses the little things we each can do: the products we purchase, our transportation choices, whether we recycle or turn off the lights, etc. Of course, these little things are insignificant in light of our global environmental condition, so one key assumption underlying these practices is that enough people will do them to make a big difference—and this assumption may or may not be true. There is an opposing position: that these small lifestyle choices actually do little more than make us feel good. According to this position, if we really want to attain positive environmental change we need to work together in civic, political, and other shared contexts to help change or enforce laws, ensure optimal policies, and otherwise focus on collectively binding practices, not individual practices.
This important debate is, then, one of the appropriate social scale of environmental action: whether, in brief, individual or institutional-scale change is where we should put our time and energy. It is, of course, easy to say “Both!”…but, in practice, one cannot do everything, and one wants to do what will make the biggest difference. So this EcoTypes axis forces us to consider carefully the scale of our action and its practical efficacy.
There is an abundant popular literature pointing out the many individual-scale actions we can do. For starters, simply search for “simple things save earth ” and you will find a wide range of online lists, also available in book format for adults and children (e.g., Javna et al. 2008, Javna and Earthworks 2009). There is indeed some scholarly justification for individual-scale action, for instance via the notion of a tipping point (Gladwell 2000), where a critical mass of small actions leads to large-scale adoption of these actions (see also change axis and related discussion on incrementalism, an assumption underlying individual-scale action as well).
For the most part, however, many scholars are less convinced of individual-scale action than the popular press, favoring more institutional-scale action (Steinberg 2015). One environmental scholar, Michael Maniates, has produced publications and student surveys centrally related to the EcoTypes scale axis. In one paper (Maniates 2001), for instance, he says:
When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society—to, in other words, “think institutionally” (p. 33).
Critiques of individual-scale action can also be found in the abundant literature on neoliberalism, which here refers to a privatization of environmental responsibility and reduction in emphasis on public-sector efforts and related politics, for instance in the context of sustainability (Swyngedouw 2010, Cock 2011; cf. Proctor 2010). According to these critics, individual-scale actions of the “50 Things” variety are exactly what neoliberal regimes do to distract us from necessary collective political action.
Yet even more broadly, the tension between individual and institutional scale action reflects a general discussion in sociological theory between the relative role and significance of agency vs. structure in shaping our social world, where the resolution is often that both play a role in some interactive manner (Giddens 1984). This longstanding structure/agency discussion reminds us that no viable resolution of the individual vs. institutional EcoTypes axis will most likely remove one of these poles, but rather that we need to strive for more intelligent ways to understand how these scales connect.