My newly adopted home state is on fire again: Scorching heat and lightning strikes have sparked dozens of fires across California, burning an area the size of Rhode Island. Iowa is reeling from a deadly derecho. The Mountain West is suffering through a severe drought. Towns and cities all over are experiencing one of the hottest summers on record, if not the hottest. And a hurricane just tore through the Gulf Coast.
With climate change making extreme weather events more intense and more common, and Congress continuing to ignore this existential threat, I have tried to do my part. After moving to California, I went on a no-buy streak. I began refusing short plane trips, using public transit or walking whenever possible, and turning the air-conditioning down. I even started carrying around a water bottle or a mason jar.
Could it be that my decision to go green is pointless, or even harmful? “Performative environmentalism” is more about personal virtue than saving the planet, says the writer s.e. smith in a searing essay, and puts the focus on the micro and futile rather than the macro and important. Polluters have convinced us that it is consumers’ fault, argues the activist George Monbiot, who also argues that we cannot buy our way out of a crisis caused by untrammeled consumption. Neoliberalism has wrested the responsibility for environmental action from the C-suite and the statehouse to the individual home, says the journalist Martin Lukacs. No less an authority than Michael Mann, the renowned climatologist, has made a version of this same argument, as have many, many other thinkers.
On one point, the experts agree: In terms of the pencil-to-paper carbon math, no matter how much of an emitter you are—flying around the world on a private jet, keeping several houses cooled to 62 degrees in the summer and warmed to 75 in the winter, eating Argentinian filet and French champagne at every meal—your contribution to climate change is minuscule and any consumption changes you might make even more so. Recycling, cutting back on driving, and changing out old light bulbs for energy-efficient ones might save half a ton of carbon a year. A household going car-free, flight-free, and vegan—changes impractical, if not outright impossible, for many families to make—might redu