What can we do in the face of the climate emergency? Many say we should drive less, fly less, eat less meat. But others argue that personal actions like this are a pointless drop in the ocean when set against the huge systemic changes that are required to prevent devastating global warming.
It’s a debate that has been raging for decades. Clearly, in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions, a single person’s contribution is basically irrelevant (much like a single vote in an election). But my research, first in my masters and now as part of my PhD, has found that doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as “normal”.
In a survey I conducted, half of the respondents who knew someone who has given up flying because of climate change said they fly less because of this example. That alone seemed pretty impressive to me. Furthermore, around three quarters said it had changed their attitudes towards flying and climate change in some way. These effects were increased if a high-profile person had given up flying, such as an academic or someone in the public eye. In this case, around two thirds said they fly less because of this person, and only 7% said it has not affected their attitudes.
I wondered if these impressionable people were already behaving like squeaky-clean environmentalists, but the figures suggested not. The survey respondents fly considerably more than average, meaning they have plenty of potential to fly less because of someone else’s example.
To explore people’s reasoning, I interviewed some of those who had been influenced by a “non-flyer”. They explained that the bold and unusual position to give up flying had: conveyed the seriousness of climate change and flying’s contribution to it; crystallised the link between values and actions; and even reduced feelings of isolation that flying less was a valid and sensible response to climate change. They said that “commitment” and “expertise” were the most influential qualities of the person who had stopped flying.
It’s not all a bed of roses, of course. Flying represents freedom, fun and progress. It boosts the economy and can provide precious travel opportunities. So suggesting that everyone should fly less, which may seem the implicit message of someone who gives up flying because of climate change, can lead to arguments and confrontation. One person, for example, said that my gently worded survey was “fascist and misinformed”. You don’t get that when you ask about washing-up liquid.
My research also probed ideas of inconsistency and hypocrisy. In short, people hate it. If Barack Obama takes a private jet and has a 14-vehicle entourage to get to a climate change conference, or a celebrity weeps for the climate while rocking a huge carbon footprint, it doesn’t go down well. And if future laws are introduced to reduce flying because of climate change, it looks essential that politicians will have to visibly reduce their flying habits, too. Other research has shown that calls for emissions reductions from climate scientists are much more credible if they themselves walk the talk.
That people are influenced by others is hardly a shocking result. Psychology researchers have spent decades amassing evidence about the powerful effects of social influence, while cultural evolution theory suggests we may have evolved to follow the example of those in prestigious positions because it helped us survive. Pick up any book on leadership in an airport shopping mall and it will likely trumpet the importance of leading by example.
Which raises the question: if our political and business leaders are serious about climate change, shouldn’t they be very visibly reducing their own carbon footprints to set an example to the rest of us? This is now the focus of my research.
Weaving an invisible thread through all of the above is the thorny issue of fairness and inequality. The wealthiest 10% of the global population are responsible for 50% of emissions, and plenty of that will be due to flying. In the UK, around 15% of people take 70% of the flights, while half of the population don’t fly at all in any one year. As emissions from aviation become an ever increasing slice of the total (currently around 9% in the UK, 2% globally) this inequality will become harder for everyone to ignore.
In the meantime, the debate about personal vs. collective action will continue. My research supports the arguments that this is a false dichotomy: individual action is part of the collective. So, while you won’t save the world on your own, you might be part of the solution.
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Last week, David Gilmour, lead singer of the legendary band Pink Floyd, announced he would be auctioning off 126 guitars from his personal collection. The news wasn’t only exciting for guitar aficionados, but climate activists alike since Gilmour pledged to donate all of the income from the auction to a climate crisis charity.
The final amount after the auction was finalised was 21 million dollars, all of which Gilmour is donating to Client Earth, a non-profit organisation that is using legal action to battle climate crisis.
Gilmour said: “ The global climate crisis is the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face, and we are within a few years of the effects of global warming being irreversible. I hope that the sale of these guitars will help ClientEarth in their cause to use the law to bring about real change. We need a civilised world that goes on for all our grandchildren and beyond in which these guitars can be played and songs can be sung.”
Not everyone can donate 21 million dollars as Gilmour did, yet every penny towards our fight against climate change counts. If you, too, want to have a small contribution towards protecting our planet, consider donating to Cool Earth below. Cool Earth works with local rainforest communities and halts deforestation, protecting the very trees that are natural carbon offsetters.
On June 20th, the Amsterdam City Council joined over 600 local governments around the world, including London, Auckland, Prague, Milan, Quebec City, and declared climate crisis. The Netherlands branch of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion had demanded that the city recognizes the climate crisis by way of a protest, a funeral procession for the city of Amsterdam, three days prior to the decision.
The declaration came after Sylvana Simons of the political party Bij1 gave a speech about the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to acknowledge the city’s duties. Simmons said:
“We are in an unprecedented ecological disaster. The climate crisis is already the end of the way of life and the lives of many people. Young climate change leaders, Extinction Rebellion activists and concerned citizens throughout the world are right to make themselves heard and demand that politicians take the necessary measures to combat the climate crisis. By declaring a climate emergency as the first Dutch city we send a clear signal that Amsterdam hears them and will do everything in its power to deal with this crisis. ”
Following the city's recognition of the climate crisis and a motion by Jaspar Groen, a councillor with the green party GroenLinks, the municipality has also proposed a climate clock showing Amsterdam's carbon emissions and how much the city has got left in its carbon budget.
There is no denying that the plant-based and animal product free food sector is rapidly growing. Every day, there is news of a well-known chain releasing a plant-based alternative to their traditionally meaty offers, or a big food conglomerate investing in plant-based options, or a new exciting company that is producing some sort of meat, dairy, or poultry alternative.
Proveg is an international food awareness organisation raising awareness about the benefits of a plant-based diet for the planet, animals, and the humankind. The organisation has been very instrumental in making animal-product-free diets mainstream and has started a startup incubator programme in 2018. The programme, first of its kind, supports emerging innovative startups with the goal of reducing animal product consumption. Here are five exciting startups from their equally exciting list of cohorts.
The first lab-grown meat product might have been a burger but the clean meat field has grown a lot since 2013 when Mark Post and his team served the $300,000 burger. That cultured meat is the next big thing is news to approximately no one but this doesn’t mean we can’t still be excited about the budding innovations. To me, ClearMeat is one such exciting cultured meat prospect. Based in India, ClearMeat is on its way to produce the world’s first chicken mince and move on to products such as tandoori chicken and chicken tikka masala from there. Chicken is the main source of animal protein in India and as the country's population steadily grows and the people's economic power with it, chicken consumption also seems to be growing rapidly. ClearMeat’s goal is to provide sustainable, healthy, and affordable meat alternatives to a growing population.
I love a good mushroom. They’re easy to cook, delicious in and of themselves, and have many species that are different but equally tasty — one might even say they’re magic. Mushlabs is employing the magic of the mushrooms and applying it to producing sustainable sustenance in an ingenious way. You might be thinking portobello burgers and mushroom mince, but instead, Mushlabs takes the roots of mushrooms and uses fermentation to produce a protein-, fiber-, and micronutrient-rich ingredient. The production process of Mushlabs uses indoor farming systems that employ vertical stacks to grow plants. Because they are stacked, vertical systems take up considerably less land and, because they are controlled environments, require less water. This makes the potential negative environmental impact of Mushlabs proteins comparably lower than it’s animal counterparts and even plant proteins. Mushlabs might soon be the answer to the questions vegans get the most: “But where do you get your protein?”
3) Legendairy Foods
Numerous people in numerous labs are on the journey to produce meat without the slaughter and intensive farming of animals but the animal farming industry doesn’t end with just meat. Although plant-based milks are on the rise even with non-vegan consumers, dairy is still very much part of the majority of people’s diet. Legendairy Foods is aiming to give people dairy milk without the destructive environmental and ethical consequences. Through a fermentation process, LegenDairy Foods transform microorganisms and sugar into milk protein and then on to dairy products. Dairy milk without cows. From anecdotal evidence, cheese seems to be the one thing people feel like they can’t give up when the topic of going vegan comes up. To me, real cheese without real cows seems to be the perfect solution to that.
Russian startup Greenwise, produces plant-based meat alternatives — meat and jerky — that are structurally almost identical to meat. Their products look, feel, and chew like real meat. Amongst the five companies, Greenwise is the one that I actually got to taste the products of and I can attest to their claim. Their plant-based meat comes in dry form and you can cook it any way you like. It absorbs the taste of whatever you decided to cook it with very well, be it broth spices or a sauce. I think GreenWise is making way in a relatively underdeveloped side of plant-based meat production. A side that is quickly growing with companies like Beyond Burger taking off in terms of media and consumer attention. That is, producing plant-based meat for meat eaters. The products of Greenwise are made to replace meat in dishes without having to compromise on taste or texture. They appeal to a fast-growing consumer base of environmentally or ethically conscious people who want to reduce their impact but not ready to give up meat.
5) Better Nature
I first discovered tempeh as a delicious protein source upon moving to the Netherlands. Tempeh is a soy product (although it can be made with other beans as well) that is made by fermenting cooked beans into a cake-like solid block. It’s a rich source of B12 (a vitamin everyone and not just non-meat eaters often lack), protein and dietary fibres. Tempeh originates from Indonesia and is a staple in SouthEast Asian cooking, thus thanks to the large Indonesian community in the Netherlands it’s very easy to find here, you can find it in almost all supermarkets. However, I was surprised to learn that it’s not at all this common or well known in other parts of the world, even the most cosmopolitan ones. Better Nature wants to change this and be the company responsible for making tempeh mainstream. They are taking this ancient food and applying contemporary scientific methods to it in order to make it even tastier and richer in protein and vitamin B12. The result is an affordable and nutritious food product that is at the same time much better for our planet compared to animal proteins.