Daniel Ritchie: Lifestyle change not enough to undo climate damage

Published: 5/9/2016 9:44:15 AM


I was glad to see the beginning of a dialogue about the behaviors people should take or change to effectively address climate disruption (“15 arrested,” April 14 article and Martha Field’s letter, April 19).

However, these behavioral “lifestyle choices,” while helpful, are inadequate to address the scale of the climate change problem in a society designed for dependence on fossil fuels.

Prof. Fields and Judge Thomas Estes refer to lifestyle changes such as biking vs. driving cars. Although using mass transit, buying local, changing to lower-energy light bulbs and even installing solar panels are important and valuable contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they are not enough to “effectively address climate change” and turn us to a trajectory that averts the impending consequences.

The judge’s statement that “it matters how you spend your money,” while true, is akin to the idea that we can shop our way to environmental salvation.

Again, small acts help. However, I think it is true to call these collective acts necessary but not sufficient.

I would argue, as others have, that the key ingredient in avoiding the worst consequences of climate change is advancing the people’s movement that pressures, interrupts, disrupts and otherwise foils corporations’ ferocious drive (and governments’ enabling of them) to reap profit from the destruction of the earth and exploitation of human and nonhuman communities.

We can walk and bike as much as we’re able — and we should — but it will be inadequate as long as fossil fuel extraction and development is legal. For as long as it is, someone will keep burning it.

Only a large scale people’s movement with a strategy that matches the scale and power of the corporate-government-military system will be able to change our future.

A second problem with the lifestyle change view is that it feeds the denial of what is required of us and masks what the real source of destruction. This view is a major narrative most of us have bought into: that we as individuals are to blame for climate change, as well as other environmental and health problems, since we drive the cars and use electricity.

This leads to guilt and blindness to the fact that corporations and governments have systematically (both intentionally and not) destroyed the means of living off the land (and waters) we live on and created a system of life that forces us to join it and depend on it.

Cars, cell phones, computers, the Internet – sure, a few manage to create a life free of these, but it would actually be impossible for our entire population to do so. These may at times seem like choices, but in general they are not.

One final, important point: there seems to be a general view, from non-environmental activists, that environmental activists who drive cars are acting hypocritically. I refer you to the argument I just made about a system that forces dependence. To put a “Stop the Pipeline” bumper sticker on your car is not hypocritical. Who better recognizes (and probably feels terrible about) the problem of depending on or using a car than environmental activists? We just want to get the message out by any means necessary.

And so we must stop the forces and systems that are creating “sacrifice zones” one town, one river, and one neighborhood at a time. Stop them by (almost) any means necessary.

On May 14, people around New England will take nonviolent direct action to stop a major component of the fossil fuel infrastructure: the long train-loads of crude oil that move weekly through the Albany region, passing feet from a low-income neighborhood where people suffer health problems and are at lethal risk if yet another crude oil train were to derail and explode.

If you care about your family, your neighbors and our beloved world, you can’t win at every lifestyle choice, but you can choose to join or support the movement.

Daniel Ritchie lives in Easthampton.



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