Is Voluntary Behavior Change Important?

I have changed my behavior in response to climate change because it feels right. On the average, the changes have been positive in my life, with the occasional challenge, but owning a car and flying had their own larger challenges. I have never seen behavior change as something to be done in lieu of working for major changes in policy.

I’m going to list a few pros and cons to behavior change. I look forward to your comments. Note: the focus is on climate change. That climate change may encourage us to make changes that benefit us is important, but to be discussed elsewhere. My question is whether a focus on individual behavior change by some helps with, or interferes with, finding solutions to climate change.

• Scientists aren’t going to be able to detect living with less among all the other behavior changes. So why work so hard?
• There are too many advantages to me to keep my behavior the same—I can stay connected to family and friends, my life is more flexible, I know more about and better appreciate our world from seeing more of it, and I have more opportunity to contribute on other issues.
• To a large degree, most living-with-less activities people focus on don’t address climate change (a SF Bay Area study found farmers markets have higher associated greenhouse gas emissions than does Safeway).
• People pay a small amount of money to groups that offset their behavior and then feel OK, and so engage in even more of that behavior. For some, at least, GHG emissions go up because there is “something we can do” and so we no longer need to worry.
• Studies show that people who perform a minor act, like buying something green, act less generously in their next behavior. We all know people like this: driving to the store to buy organic food in recyclable plastic means I’ve done my good deed for the day. Read about one such study in the NY Times, When Green Consumers Decide I’ve Done Enough, and about “single-action bias” on page 2.
• Per the “single-action bias”, people who work on changing their behavior (or helping others change theirs) do not work on policy. Severin Borenstein says in this talk that voluntary behavior change is fine, he does it, but we don’t address air pollution by asking people to do voluntary smog checks.

• Some people sort through their response to climate change by examining their own behavior.
• Part of the solutions, beyond adding a cost to GHG and technology change, will include limiting behavior, eg, through congestion charges for driving in crowded downtown, such as is done in London. This will be easier if a critical mass of the public already buys into alternatives to driving everywhere. Note: the hefty congestion charges are accompanied by an increase in bus service.
• We are not addressing climate change in part because we have so many fears about what this requires of us. Addressing our fears allows frees us to address climate change.

Voluntary behavior change gets us to this faster or slower?
Voluntary behavior change gets us to this faster or slower? picture credit

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the above arguments? What additional arguments exist?

4 Responses to “Is Voluntary Behavior Change Important?”

  1. Rosemary says:

    It might be worthwhile to agitate against personal lifestyle changes if we had the power to make people demand structural change instead. But what guarantee is there that they would do that? It’s similar to the arguments about nuclear and wind, etc. They will only be worth it if Congress requires electric companies to reduce their reliance on coal and gas as the new sources come online. If not, you just have all the problems of nuclear with no reduction in emissions. is trying to increase political activism. But it would be good if all enviro sites, Grist, for instance, would put this as the top priority. The list usually begins “change your lightbulbs,” and then somewhere far down, after you’ve switched to local food and stopped driving, you might call your representatives. They need to change that around, consistently.

  2. Hystery says:

    Voluntary simplicity, for me anyhow, is actually far more about living out my pacifism. It is about integrity and making my inner conviction match my outward behavior and disciplining myself toward a path that makes my heart as tender as possible. As far as possible, I must make each decision, even the little ones, about living justly and gently. That may mean that in different situations, I make different decisions. It also means that I understand the same is true for others. Maybe it doesn’t matter too much if I clean up a spill with my old ratty rag that I washed in home made detergent and hung to dry in the sun rather than grabbing a paper towel. But when I do this little thing, it is an act of solidarity and an act of prayer and it prepares me for the next action I may be asked to take.

  3. Karen Street says:

    Thanks Hystery and Rosemary. Two very different answers, and it’s good to get different answers!

    Rosemary, I don’t understand what you are saying about nuclear and wind. I don’t support agitating against personal lifestyle changes, but do wonder when that focus helps with addressing climate change, and when it interferes.

    Hystery, my focus with this question is climate change. I agree that living a life where we make fewer choices, more important choices, helps us, helps the world. But is this important for dealing with climate change? And if I am living out my pacifism, isn’t mitigating climate change emissions pretty much up there on the list of issues to address?

  4. Hystery says:

    Oh, yes! I think that mitigating climate change emissions is way up there on the list of issues to address as a pacifist. I wouldn’t argue against that approach for a moment nor would I argue that one who spends more time agitating for substantive changes in climate emissions standards rather than making her own laundry soap was less green. Indeed, I think that would be very hard to argue unless I were intensely naive and short-sighted. My argument is not about which is superior. (Although I would argue that directly approaching climate change emissions rather than lifestyle choices is more immediately effective). I only state that one does not necessarily choose to focus energy on voluntary lifestyle changes as a means of effectively addressing climate change, but to demonstrate solidarity, integrity, and faithfulness to environmentalism as a lived, spiritual, intellectual process.

    I also see that you are not advocating against voluntary behavior changes, but maybe asking if emphasizing personal choice over systemic change and political activism to enforce such change at the government/institutional level is really that effective? My position is that if my individual actions as an environmentalist would be effective if they were shared by pretty much everyone else. But I know they aren’t and I know that my actions are unlikely to inspire enough people toward change to make a significant difference. I do them as a matter of personal integrity and faith as a Friend and as a Pagan. On the other hand, I have written on my own blog that I am resentful of the notion often espoused on Earth Day that we should all start living greener lives by changing light bulbs and whatnot. This bothers me because advocacy of little change distracts us from the need for change on the grand scale…and this is change that individuals cannot achieve on their own. What is needed is fundamental change in international, national, and local laws that alter the ways that governments, industries, corporations, communities AND individuals behave. I make my choice out of love, but I believe that there is simply not enough time left to leave the question of climate change in the hands of individuals.