What is the most effective thing you can do as an individual to counteract climate change? According to a new opinion poll from Kantar Public, most westerners don’t know the true answer. Not only that – they believe the exact opposite of what is true.
According to residents of ten western countries, including the United States, Germany, and Sweden, recycling is the most common answer to what is “very important” for improving the climate, while reduced consumption and reduced meat consumption are the least common answers. Even reduced car use and flying were rarely described as very important by the respondents.
This is almost as if most people would walk around thinking that the most effective thing they can do to cross the Atlantic Ocean is to travel with a bamboo raft.
Four years ago, a study was published at Lund University that showed which individual life choices lead to the greatest reduction in one’s greenhouse gas emissions. It states that a year’s plant-free diet free of animal products is four times more efficient than recycling, refraining from a single transatlantic flight is eight times more efficient and living car-free for a year is eleven times more efficient.
Recycling may be useful, but it can certainly not be classified as the most important climate measure. Why then do most westerners claim that this is the case? Lobbying from the meat, car and aerospace industries is, of course, a culprit in the drama, as is the political rhetoric that, for fear of losing votes, often unscientifically insists that we maintain our food and transport habits.
But the study from Kantar also showed that an important factor is convenience. 74 percent of those surveyed said they were “proud” of what they are already doing for the climate—which I guess includes a lot of recycling. Instead of finding out what actually saves lives, you tell yourself and others that what you are already doing is the best possible.
We often assume that people first become convinced of things on an intellectual level, and then adapt their lifestyle accordingly. Sometimes it is so – I myself became an environmental activist after I had read about the state of the world in books – but it is at least as common that our opinions are adapted to how we live and what social contexts we belong to.
No wonder Jesus insisted that his disciples follow him, rather than just believing on a theoretical level.
Of course, opinion formation still has an important role to play, especially when it is now so clear that even many who are not climate threat deniers believe in ill-founded myths. But people need to be doers of the word, not just hearers, to quote the letter of James.
What is needed are communities where plant-based diets and car-free lives are as common and natural as recycling cardboard packaging. Research shows that people find it much easier to change their lifestyle when they do it in groups.
Here, the churches have a fantastic opportunity to step forward as such norm-changing communities. Just imagine what would happen if the world’s two billion Christians decided to live sustainably tomorrow.
Climate change would literally be over in just a day. So what are we waiting for?