To shop or not to shop in the holidays? That is the (wrong?) question for the climate warrior

Credit: Brave New Films

The holiday season has never been easy for those who are committed to combatting climate change (aka climate warriors). And this year is no different. While climate warriors may be occupied with the latest news from the Amazon, campaigns against banks and PR firms working with fossil fuel companies, or why the Daily podcast airs misleading Exxon ads, everything around them seems to be occupied mainly with one thing: holiday shopping.

Whether these are the gazillion emails you receive with (early!) Black Friday deals or the endless discussions on the media about the impact of “inflation and supply chain woes,” the message is loud and clear: Shopping is an integral part of the holidays, and if you don’t shop and give gifts then you aren’t really celebrating the holidays. Anyone trying to challenge this narrative, especially in the U.S., is at risk of being considered a party pooper, and who wants to be one these days?

Those who are still brave enough to challenge the dominant narrative of holiday shopping as a source of joy and a sign of a healthy economy can find themselves asking two questions: What can I do about it? and, whatever I choose to do, will it make any difference at all? Interestingly the answers to these questions haven’t changed much over the years. Responses to the first question are usually on the range between buying nothing to buying what is marketed as sustainable products. The problem is that the impact of these responses is quite negligible and it makes little to no difference in the grand scheme of things.

The questions about personal action (and responsibility) are not exclusive to the holiday season and we can see debates about individual vs. collective action all year round. However, this time of the year calls attention to these questions due to the tension between the mainstream narratives of consumption (specifically in the global North) and the reality that is growingly shaped by a planetary crisis. This is the tension between the recognition that we are at a point of discontinuity, which Alex Steffen describes as “a watershed moment, one where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future” and an economic system still clinging to the continuity of the status quo.

So, if you consider yourself to be a climate warrior, or want to become one, what do you do during the holidays when you’re stuck between your understanding of the physical reality of the climate crisis and the fictional story of business-as-usual that is all around you?

There is no easy answer to this question. However, a starting point would be to try avoiding the common debates between those who believe that focusing on personal lifestyle choices only plays into the hands of fossil fuel companies, which would like us to focus on our carbon footprint, and those who believe that personal choices do matter.

Two years ago I wrote about the question of collective vs. individual in the context of the debate around flying (To Fly Or Not To Fly: That Is The (Wrong?) Question), where I suggested that making change happen requires multi-dimensional action. I laid out a multi-dimensional configuration for transformation (based on Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna’s Three Spheres of Transformation), where individual, political and cultural domains interact to generate a desired outcome (see below).

The models of transformation I have been working on have evolved since then to incorporate multiple scenarios and a theory of change that is informed by the key role of mental models and the narratives shaping them (see here — I discuss it in more detail in my new book Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis). For example, using backcasting I would look now to define a vision of a desired future first, not last. At the same time, I still find the role of interactive relationships across different domains a key to driving transformation. It means that not only individual and collective actions are both parts of the bigger picture of transformation, but also that we want to pay attention to the interactions between them.

Individual action creates meaningful value when it triggers collective action

“For individual actions, however small, to be effective it is essential that they generate momentum.”Gernot Wagner

I agree with Gernot Wagner. In my opinion, individual action, or changes in someone’s lifestyle (e.g., stop eating meat) has little value unless it is connected, directly or indirectly with collective action. In other words, if I change my diet or buy significantly less and that’s about it, then it will generate little to no impact. At the same time, individual action could be an effective starting point that could help support collective action, i.e. action aimed at driving meaningful solutions at scale (e.g., action aimed at governments and/or businesses). It can help, for example, take a very complex and broad issue, such as climate change, and make it more personal and relatable, getting us to care more and become more interested in climate change. Overall, we can think of individual action as a potential leverage point — a place within a complex system “where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” In other words, we should think of it as the means rather than the end.

But how do we connect individual and collective action?

As presented in the picture below I see two potential pathways to connect individual action effectively with collective action. The first one suggests that taking action to reduce your carbon footprint could lead to changes in one’s mental model (or mindset), increasing one’s interest in and willingness to become more involved in collective action. The latter could include for example climate activism on different levels (local, national, international, professional, focusing on a single issue, etc.). It can also include engagement with family and friends on climate issues, echoing Katherine Hayhoe’s idea that “the most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it” (this action is also critical in terms of shifting social norms and promoting new climate narratives).

I have been experimenting with this pathway for a number of years through an assignment I have been giving to my students, which is called Personal Sustainability Practice (PSP). Inspired by the work conducted more than a decade ago by Adam Werbach with Walmart employees, the PSP assignment asks students to identify sustainability pain points in their life, from single-use packaging to food waste, and make changes in their day-to-day lifestyle to solve them. Students could choose from a list of 15–20 PSPs (see an example of such a list from a couple of years ago here) one that works best for them and work on it for a whole semester.

Changing mental models is the key

Our range of possible action is articulated by the extent of our mental models. They are either springboards or cages.” — Dan Hill

The abovementioned PSP assignment was exploring not only whether the students could meet their goals to exploring but also the prospects of changes in their mental models about sustainability. Defined by Peter Senge as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action,” mental models “help people make sense of the world — to interpret their environment and understand themselves.”

The World Bank suggests that “policy interventions may successfully expose people to experiences that change their mental models, which can prove important for development.” I was interested to see if the PSP experiences of individual action could also create such an impact. To use Dan Hill’s metaphor, I was curious whether these PSP experiences could help make students’ mental models into springboards, empowering them to further explore sustainability solutions at scale and construct their own narratives of change. To put it another way, mental model changes can drive greater involvement in collective action aimed at governments and companies, which will help realize changes in regulation and social norms needed to meet the 1.5C goal.

Overall, while I saw some promising and interesting results with the PSPs, I didn’t find clear indications supporting the PSP theory of change (i.e. individual action leads to mental model change, which eventually leads to involvement in collective action). This is why I changed this assignment to reflect a different and somewhat less linear theory of change, where taking personal as well as a short-term collective action at the same time could lead to a mindset shift, which in return will strengthen the willingness to be involved in collective action in the long run.

The long-run matters. The key challenge of collective action is that the fight on climate change is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also a numbers game — studies suggest a range of 10–40% of the population as the size of an effective critical mass, and one study looking into this question empirically found that 25% of the population is the required size in the case of changing social norms. This is not an easy task, which is why we need to consider which pathways could help generate the numbers and long-term commitment needed to win the war on climate.

You can see the list of short-term collective actions offered in the new PSP below — they include different engagements, with family and friends, companies, local policymakers, and movements.

So, what can a climate warrior (or wannabe climate warrior) do this month?

To shop or not to shop? First, I would follow Patagonia’s advice to “consider how and what you give this holiday season” and look for ways to give do not involve buying new stuff. At the same time, I find it more useful to reframe this question to: How to use this month to best support the fight over climate change? My answer to this question would be (in the context of the aforementioned discussion on the PSPs):

  1. If you don’t work on at least one individual action and one collective action then do it. You can use the list above or just look for other actions that work best for you. Commit to doing them for at least 15 weeks.
  2. Challenge someone to join you — invite a colleague, a family member, or friend to join you on this 15-week journey and commit to one individual action and one collective action as well. Ask them to challenge someone else as well (could be in a fun way, like the ice bucket challenge), and hopefully it will get more people on board.

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2021). You can find other articles highlighting topics explored in the book on my Medium page and are welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.

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Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

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