Why large-scale activism is the 'most powerful path out of climate despair'

Individual lifestyle choices — such as recycling or reducing meat consumption — are not enough to slow down climate change, according to journalist David Wallace-Wells. He says only engagement at a high level can help mitigate the disastrous ecological impacts of human activity on the environment.

'As more people in each community begin to [mobilize] ... it brings momentum to the whole'

Students march outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria on Friday. (Michael McArthur/CBC News)

Individual lifestyle choices — such as recycling or reducing meat consumption — are not enough to slow down climate change, according to journalist David Wallace-Wells.

For The New York Magazine deputy editor, who made waves with his 2017 essay "The Uninhabitable Earth," activism and engagement at a high level is the "most powerful path out of climate despair."

David Wallace-Wells is a columnist and the deputy editor for New York Magazine. (Mike McGregor)

"Individual action simply can't get us to zero [carbon] emissions," he told Tapestryhost Mary Hynes. "Ultimately, those efforts are marginal compared to what can be achieved through policy and through politics, and that for me is why we need to focus on those levers."

Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said countries were not living up to their commitments under the 2016 Paris climate agreement to keep the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The UN's recent report on biodiversity also noted that climate change and species loss intersect. The report warned that extinction is looming over one million species of plants and animals, largely due to humans, and its co-author echoed Wallace-Wells's sentiment about the need for a "fundamental, structural change" to mitigate those losses.

Even with such grim outlooks, Wallace-Wells admits he still lives in "complacency and denial" because the all-encompassing nature of climate change is difficult to comprehend.

"I think there are very few people who are as focused on or as mobilized by this threat, by the scale of the threat, as they should be," he said.

Activism as a coping strategy

But sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard says the sheer scale of the issue can create "a lot of paralysis."

Kari Norgaard is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon (Submitted by Kari Norgaard)

"Our whole societies are organized around very high intensive carbon emissions and it is extremely overwhelming to try to think about these issues, to try to think about what we're up against," said Norgaard, who explores the subject in her book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life.

"So for an individual to step out of that and really try to make sense of this very large threat to our societies and our ways of life  — especially if you have been raised to believe that this is a good thing or this is just life as you know it — is very difficult."

But the University of Oregon associate professor says channeling energy into structural changes can help ease some of that anxiety.

"Climate change is very big, it's very scary. It's not something we can work on alone. As more people in each community begin to [mobilize], it not only makes it more pleasant and meaningful along the way, but it brings momentum to the whole."

Norgaard highlighted a group of young adults who are suing the U.S. government over climate change as an example.

"There is a sense of authenticity of experience that youth are articulating, which I know resonates deeply for many people, and it's so important that the older generation follow their lead, back them, and begin to be together with them."

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg attends the 'Friday For Future' rally in Berlin, Germany, on March 29, 2019. Sociologist Kari Norgaard says we need to follow the youth's lead when it comes to climate change action. (Michael Kappeler/The Associated Press)

She stressed the need for "social and structural change, because the impacts of climate [change] are already happening for all of us, but the impacts are being borne disproportionately and have been for a very long time, in poorer communities, in communities of colour, Indigenous communities."

She adds that while denial might be "a very natural response" for some, not everyone has this blind spot.

"For communities who have never benefitted, materially or symbolically, from the modern nation-states — Indigenous communities being the most clear of these — it is not so difficult to challenge these [institutions]."

Right to a safe environment

Crystal Lameman is a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. (Submitted by Crystal Lameman)

Crystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, says she has no other choice but to fight climate change. The northern Alberta First Nation has already observed changes in their environment and as a result, changes to their lifestyle, she says.

"Our people experience climate change through the berries and the changes in them," Lameman said. "They experience it through the way in which our animals are migrating. They experience it through the changes in our water, the changes in our ecosystems."

She says the populations of animal species the band subsists on, such as woodland caribou, are in decline. Bodies of water have become polluted and water levels have drastically receded. 

Lameman, who is also the treaty coordinator for the Beaver Lake Cree, believes these changes are a direct result of industry activity on their land.

Beaver Lake Cree member Crystal Lameman says bodies of water have become polluted and water levels have drastically receded as a result of industry activity. (Epic Photography)

"Because of the way in which our land has become fragmented by industry and extreme energy, I could never consciously follow that same practice that my grandma did and give that water to my children, because of the fear that I have, because of the chemicals in that water."

The water has become too polluted to drink, says Beaver Lake Cree Nation member.

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation has spent the past decade embroiled in a legal challenge against the Alberta and federal governments, in which they claim that the cumulative impacts of industrial development on the treaty land infringe on their rights.

"Within our treaty, we have the right to hunt and gather … When an animal that we rely on is affected, and our living environment is affected, that's a direct violation of our treaty that is enshrined in Section 35 of the Canadian constitution," said Lameman.

She added that while the legal battle is "grounded in our legal treaty rights, it's grounded in the protection of our environment and as a way to curb climate change."

"This is about those next seven generations, no matter their race, colour or creed."