Seven years ago I stood in a huge office park on the shores of San Francisco Bay, feeling alone despite the thirty other people who were with me holding signs, chanting, or at times blocking traffic. Fighting down my natural aversion to being on camera and swallowing my embarrassment at the sound of my own voice, I used a megaphone to tell Cargill and DMB Associates that their presence in my hometown was not welcome.
DMB is the development firm hired by Cargill, the United States’ largest private corporation, to advance a now-shelved development plan that would have placed over 10,000 luxury homes on 1,400 acres of restorable wetlands owned by Cargill along the bayshore in Redwood City, California.
I loved the ocean and the bay as a child, and the spectre of wetlands being paved over was a constant fear while coming of age in Redwood City. Past efforts to stop Cargill at the ballot box had failed. It wasn’t until the Occupy Wall Street movement sprung up in my hometown that I was able to connect with others who felt the way I did about the world’s worst company trying to cash in on our wetlands and who were ready to take our concerns right to DMB’s front door. A few weeks after the protest I organized, DMB shelved their plan and their vice president resigned.
It would be super egotistical and inaccurate to claim that DMB changed course because of some events that my friends and I amateurishly cobbled together. There were community groups, environmental advocacy organizations, and elected officials from all over the Bay Area who spoke out against DMB and Cargill’s plans for Redwood City for years. But a demonstration right in front of DMB’s offices had not been done before, and I was later approached by folks in the “opposing camp” who let me know that my efforts made a difference. These interactions made me aware of my own power, and of how powerful any person could be in creating small-scale change.
But can individuals be as powerful when it comes to tackling something as big as the global climate crisis? How do we best direct our personal energies to make a difference on climate change? If protecting wetlands in one community can be a DIY endeavor, can we make saving the planet from ourselves one too?
If you’re following current discussions around green lifestyle choices, you’ve probably already heard or read that individual behavioral changes, like switching to paper straws or taking the bus more often, aren’t as effective as pushing for broad systemic change when tackling environmental issues. We know that there are only 20 companies and under 10 countries responsible for the bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that debating personal behaviors only takes focus away from the behaviors of the select few climate culprits who are at the heart of the crisis. Greener consumption might not even reduce your carbon footprint anyway!
Encouraging people to make small individual sacrifices might even diminish their appetite for the more substantial changes we require. If you’re on a tight budget and you’re already spending extra money on recycled toilet paper or a hybrid vehicle, you might be less inclined to support a far-reaching tax on carbon that might further impact your finances.
But really, does the fact that 71% of all global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 100 fossil fuel producers make you feel okay about getting plastic bags made from fossil fuels at the supermarket? That statistic may absolve most of us of a great deal of responsibility, not least because half the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the world’s richest 10% to begin with. However, it shouldn’t give us an exemption from being active citizens.
Don’t underestimate the power of the individual. Consumer boycotts, in which individuals vote with their dollars, have at times been effective in creating change, such as the boycott of Taco Bell led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or the Delano grape strike initiated by Filipino farm workers in California.
Lifestyle changes and purchasing decisions won’t solve climate change, but they can be useful in setting you on a path toward battling the major culprits. I wasn’t a child who was thinking about how to take on Cargill in my hometown. I was a child who urged my parents to change their buying habits because I was worried about dolphins being caught in tuna nets and about trash building up in the ocean. Without moments of empathy that forced me to think about actions and consequences, I would never have felt the drive to speak out against the actions of a corporation that had sunk deep roots into my community.
How can you move beyond behavioral changes and confront the climate crisis head on to create system change? Here is a short list of DIY tips, from a very amateur organizer:
- Think local. It’s hard for most people to travel to Washington D.C. or to a Conference of Parties to get face time with those who wield power and make decisions. It’s a lot easier to do that at city hall. Don’t forget: People who start off as school board members or city council members often go on to become state and Congressional legislators. Often these small governments–city councils, special tax districts, water boards, and more–own and manage wide swaths of our natural environment! There are many places where you can start your journey of making change.
- Don’t underestimate yourself. Many government bodies don’t get nearly the amount of public scrutiny or input that you think, and public meetings at the local or committee level can be poorly attended. You may just be one voice, but if you’re speaking to an institution that doesn’t hear from the public that often, you can have an outsized influence. Half the battle is showing up!
- Know your stuff. Elected officials often respond to members of the public who criticize their actions as being “misinformed.” Be as informed as possible, not just to avoid such responses but so that you can accurately identify when a public figure is gaslighting you.
- Don’t prejudge. I’ve clashed with self-described progressive politicians who will prioritize the concerns of developers over the environment or the concerns of well-off landlords over those of low-income tenants. I’ve also collaborated with self-described conservatives who care about climate change and want to see rent control enacted. Be open to forming relationships and collaborations you might never have thought of at first, because you’ll need them.
- Shop around. Are you making no headway convincing your mayor that your city needs to do something about climate change? Maybe build a relationship with a county-level politician instead, or a state representative. If they’re all unreceptive, take your concerns to the media, or to neighborhood groups and even online community forums.
- Remember self-care. I learned the hard way that there is only so much of yourself you can give before you burn out. Climate grief is real and is difficult enough to deal with when you’re at your physical and mental best. Think in the long term and preserve your health: Self-care, when it comes to creating change, is about understanding your limits and preserving your body and mind so that you can be your most effective self. If you ever start feeling overwhelmed, there are many tips online on self-care for activists.
- Be persistent, be resilient. Since shelving their development plan for Redwood City, Cargill has lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency behind the scenes to ensure that the wetlands they converted for salt production would not be covered by certain provisions of the Clean Water Act. For a while they made no progress, but in the last few years a new, more receptive administration in the White House has been listening, and this March the EPA breathed new life into Cargill and DMB’s plans.
Once again, a multitude of groups are coming together to put DMB’s zombie plan back to bed, but the point is: If Cargill can be resilient in the face of setbacks, so should we!
- Stay creative, and keep your humor: