This post is for my students in Introduction to Environmental Studies, the first course in a sequence offered by our ENVS Program—but it addresses a dilemma many of us feel:
Do my actions in this world make a difference at all?
In this course, students learn of a debate between individual vs. institutional scale action. I’ve discussed this debate in greater depth here, but essentially it concerns whether we can make the most difference via one or the other. Many of us have learned that individual-scale action—recycling, turning off the lights, eating locally sourced food, etc.—is the best way for each of us to make a difference; but scholars like Michael Maniates argue:
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” (Maniates 2001, 33).
According to Maniates and many other contemporary scholars (see e.g. the Social Rules Project), “thinking institutionally” is the way to make a difference. But, if this is true, another big question arises:
Does this mean I should give up on doing all those individual-scale things?
Here is my answer: no! My reasoning may best be understood by comparing two highly influential moral theories: consequentialism and deontology (see here for a scholarly summary in the context of environmental ethics).
Consider this question: why should I do something?
- Consequentialism says that we should do the thing that produces the best (or the least bad) consequences. “Making a difference” (i.e., producing good consequences) is everything to the consequentialist.
- Deontology says that our moral duties may have nothing to do with their consequences; some things are just right (or wrong) to do. As one well known example, even if capital punishment were proven to reduce violent crime (a debatable assertion), you could say that it is wrong to take a life, even of a capital offender.
- (A third common theory in the scholarly summary above, virtue theory, also suggests that consequences may not be the primary moral consideration; what may be most important is the virtuous character of the actor.)
I see no reason why I cannot be a consequentialist at times, and a deontologist (or virtue-theory follower) at others—a position roughly known as moral bricolage (Stout 1988). That is, I can do some things because I believe they make a difference, and other things just because I think they are right—whether or not they make a difference.
Now, this both-and solution is not entirely robust, as we all work with finite time and attention—and, as Maniates reminds us above, the larger (neoliberal) trend toward individualization of responsibility tends to make institutional-scale action disappear.
But each of us, you and I, are multiple agents; we can act at multiple scales. Often our individual-scale actions focus on the here and now, whereas our actions affecting more distant peoples and places are done via institutions (as one excellent example, see philosopher Peter Singer’s initiative The Life You Can Save).
So…yes, contemporary environmental scholarship suggests that if we want to make a difference we should act institutionally—but, given the context above, individual-scale action need not be purged from your life! The important thing is to be mindful of why you are doing a certain kind of action, and to be honest about this with yourself and others.
[Featured image from As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial]