Personal choice and individual action are problematic in climate justice but relevant to environmental justice. For climate justice, we need structural changes, and individual action is mostly relevant to the top 10% of global earners. In environmental justice, personal choice links to the type of environment we inhabit and how we define it. Additionally, and in the framework of eco-feminism and feminist care theory, we acknowledge that living components of any environment communicate how they wish to be treated. In this light, adopting veganism as a personal choice is a form of environmental justice. Away from the individual vs. structural dichotomic discourse, personal choices can be political and compassionate forms of activism.
In the context of climate and environmental justice, personal choice and individual action refer to lifestyle and consumption patterns of energy, services, products, dieting, clothes, and transportation, in addition to other things. These choices are consequential in the environmental framework but are problematic in climate justice. Climate Justice starts from the premise that not everyone is experiencing the effects of climate change equally. Nor do they hold the same responsibility for mitigating its effects. Indeed, there are classist and colonial dimensions to the historical and political responsibilities of this global calamity.
Earth scientists trace global warming back to the industrial revolution and the beginnings of modern-day capitalism in Europe. The Global North has benefited from its colonial legacy and developed its countries’ economies and infrastructures. Consequently, the extraction of Global South resources and violent oppression of indigenous people everywhere left many lands and communities vulnerable. Today, this capitalist (post)colonial extractionism parasitic synergy manifests in the one hundred corporates responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The class dimension is measurable on an individual level too. The world’s top 10 percent of income earners are responsible for 50 percent of GHG emissions per capita, while the 50 percent bottom income earners are responsible for only 10 percent. Yet, capitalism and neoliberalism continue to throw the blame at the masses. They greenwash the liability of international companies and structures and promote hyper-individualistic solutions as viable climate action. This is why personal choice is problematic in climate justice for most people except for the top 10 percent of earners. Justice necessitates radical structural change, institutional accountability, and reparations for collective and individual environmental harm.
Climate action is any action that will help reduce global GHG emissions and mitigate climate change consequences. Environmental action focuses on preserving local ecosystems, quality of life, and the sustainability of natural resources in a specific place. Although globalization made it challenging to separate the local from the global, personal choice is still relevant to environmental justice. The weight of individual choice or behavior depends on its nature, patterns, effects on a specific ecosystem, and most significantly, what and whom we include in our definitions of nature and justice.
Living a zero-waste lifestyle and saving water is relevant to any local environment. Even though structural barriers, such as classism, govern accessibility to clean water per se. The actions of those who have access impact the availability and sustainability of reservoirs. Therefore, demanding structural change goes hand in hand with individual action in environmental justice. Yet we are still talking about justice for the people. The humans. What about justice towards the “natural world” itself?
When imagining nature, most people conjure images of verdant greenery and wildlife, or natural disasters. The imagery is reductionist in both cases; one is romantic, exotic, and beneficent, and the other is volatile and tragic. Plants, trees, and forests are inanimate objects, while nonhuman animals are soulless mindless beasts or automatons living in a perpetual present. In both cases, the human is a separate entity of superior intelligence that needs to assert its control over nature to the benefit of its kind. Eco-feminists consider this spiciest logic an extension of patriarchal, colonial, capitalist, and ableist claims to dominance.
Regarding personal choice and justice towards the “natural world” and in particular, nonhuman animals, some eco-feminists draw on feminist care theory in their approach to ethics. In this framework, feminists acknowledge that nonhuman animals are sentient and always communicate how they wish to be treated. In the same way that we acknowledge voices subversive to the dominance of patriarchy and capitalism, we ought to respect the standpoint of animals. Animals do not wish to be harmed, eaten, exploited, experimented on, or used in any way. Honoring this standpoint means adopting a vegan lifestyle. Veganism as a personal choice is imperative to environmental justice.
There’s a discourse gaining popularity on the topic of personal choice. It sets individual action as a contradictory and incompatible path with system change. It claims the first is a distraction tactic from holding the real culprits accountable. However, these two paths aren’t mutually exclusive. Capitalism didn’t invent eco-personal choice. It simply depoliticized and dehistoricized it. Long before it incorporated it as a marketing tool, a vehicle of public relations schemes, or climate disinformation propaganda, it was an act of defiance and resistance for environmentalists and indigenous folks.
Today we need to reaffirm meaningful individual action and personal choices as methods of boycott and rejection of modern patterns of consumption, global supply chains, and consumerism. Individual action can indeed be part of our collective efforts and the sum of economic choices that can reclaim local communal ecosystems and mutual aid. It can be a steppingstone towards just and compassionate realities as opposed to the brutal systems that govern our lives and destroy the natural world.
Reham Kannout Alrefaei (Pronouns: She/her) is an intersectional and eco-feminist from Syria and based in Lebanon. She has an eclectic background and currently works as a researcher.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.