What can one person do?

These were course notes from one session of a course I did on Climate Change held at U3APP in early 2022.


Senior Psychologist, Dr Susie Burke, explains that hope comes in myriad forms, each one the catalyst for a different response, and some more useful than others.

The space between hope and despair, Dr Susie Burke, Dumbo Feather, 13th Jan, 2020

  1. a) Optimistic hope – believe in the likelihood of good outcomes
  • Pollyanna hope – Passive optimism – it will all work out naturally or someone else will fix it in the end
  • Heroic hope – Active optimism – People with this attitude say things like “We’ll make it happen” and “There’s no end to human ingenuity”.

However, once the outcomes start to look not-so-positive, this type of optimism quickly turns to pessimism. Where climate change is concerned, optimism has a weak case. There is however another types of hope, sceptical hope – which can also be useful, and goes beyond optimism and pessimism.


  1. b) Sceptical hope
  • Stoic hope – Passive scepticism – we feel pessimistic, but convince ourselves we’ll “weather the storm”  and “Afterwards, we will rebuild”. Passive scepticism is a hopeful perspective in which the person isn’t sure that the future will be ok, but believes that not much needs to be done to change the course we’re on, because it will be bearable.
  • Grounded hope (most useful)..– active scepticism. I cannot just stand by. With active scepticism the person is realistic about the threats, sceptical about it turning out ok, accepts that there’s perhaps no reason to be optimistic, but is determined to go for it anyway and chooses to do whatever they can to bring about the best possible outcome, because standing by is an unacceptable and unethical option.


The twilight of the ethical consumer, Elizabeth L. Cline, Atmos, 19th October, 2020

Ethical Consumers are people who believe that we are slowly and inexorably driving business and society to be more responsible one purchase at a time. Ethical Consumers are a by-product of neoliberal economic changes that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. Neoliberalism spread the mantra that human needs and even solutions to social problems are best met by the marketplace and by capitalism—not government, civil society, or collective action. Out went strong environmental regulations, social welfare programs, labour unions, and, most crucially, our generations-long history and culture of how to make change through public rather than private means.

But if we look just a little way back, to before the neoliberal era, we can find consumer-driven social movements that wielded extraordinary amounts of political power and made lasting changes to society that still benefit us today.  The “consumer movement,” as it was known, was one of the most successful social movements of the 20th century, aiming to protect citizens from corrupt economic and government power as it intersected with the products they purchased.

Some of the heroes of this movement are familiar. Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring went to war with the powerful petrochemical industry and helped galvanize consumers around the issue of toxic pesticides. Activists won a total ban on the lethal chemical DDT, and subsequent citizen protests helped found the Environmental Protection Agency. Ralph Nader’s 1965 landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed called out the American auto industry for endangering drivers, which led to government-mandated safety standards in cars, including seat belts and air bags. Earlier eras of consumer activism resulted in antitrust laws, first enforced in the early decades of the 20th century.

It might sound like we’re cut from the same cloth, but Consumer Activists of yesteryear share few similarities with our modern Ethical Consumer selves. While Consumer Activists went to great lengths to understand how products were made and sold and how corporations function, this process of knowing was not in service of choosing better products, it was for the explicit purpose of holding corporations and government accountable. “Consumer reforms cannot be separated from corporate reforms: they are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Nader in The Consumer and Corporate Accountability, a 1973 anthology of the movement’s mid-career victories.

The most striking difference between yesterday’s consumer activist and today’s ethical consumer is the matter of responsibility. Who or what is to blame for social problems, and who has the power to solve them? Consumer Activists believed that companies selling goods and services have a responsibility to “their customers, to their workers, and to the government agencies which regulate them.” Companies have a responsibility to society. And when companies endanger us or the environment, it’s their fault, not ours as shoppers. They understood that the market must be tamed with democracy, and rules and guardrails, or it would always exploit.

The Ethical Consumer, by contrast, somehow believes that we personally cause social problems by sending market cues that we want unethical and unsustainable products. If we follow our own beliefs to their logical conclusion, that means problems as serious as the climate crisis are somehow the result of not shopping in the right stores. But would the problem you’re trying to address with your shopping cart be better tackled by a new rule, a new regulation, a ban, an incentive, a new social program, a different way of doing things? The answer is almost always yes.


Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Still Matters, Slate, Leor Hackel And Gregg Sparkman, Oct 26, 2018


We don’t recommend taking personal actions like limiting plane rides, eating less meat, or investing in solar energy because all of these small tweaks will? build up to enough carbon savings (though it could help). We do so because people taking action in their personal lives is actually one of the best ways to get to a society that implements the policy-level change that is truly needed. Research on social behaviour suggests lifestyle change can build momentum for systemic change. Humans are social animals, and we use social cues to recognize emergencies. People don’t spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water. The same principle applies to personal actions on climate change.



12 climate actions to make an impact, Climate Council, 25th Feb, 2020

  1. Grow awareness of the urgency of the problem and educate people on the solutions .
    1. Share information
    2. Have a conversation


  1. Divest your super. You have power over where your money goes, and can choose to put it into ethical banks and super funds that will take your dollars out of the fossil fuel industry and invest them in renewable energy projects instead.


  1. Lifestyle changes
    1. changing diet
    2. buying less (refuse / educe / reuse)
    3. shop locally made products
    4. stop having babies (or have fewer)
    5. use less electricity / become more energy efficient
    6. get renewable energy and then switch from gas to electric
    7. stop driving your car / drive it less
    8. stop flying / buy carbon offsets when you fly


  1. Exert political and social pressure everywhere you can. The more people who contact their local MP on a given topic (e.g. climate change), the more likely they are to raise this matter in the Parliament and their party room.
    1. Email politicians and companies telling them how you feel
    2. Request a face to face discussion with your MP
    3. Attend rallies and marches
    4. Sign petitions
    5. Vote


  1. Join and/or support an organisation battling climate change. There are many groups both local and national available to help you educate yourself and others and who take actions on climate change. You are not alone. JOIN,  DONATE,  ADVOCATE

Here is a small sample of  over 100 Australian groups you can join or help fund:

  1. PECAN (Port Phillip Emergence Climate Action Network) – Local focus
  2. The Climate Council – Strong history and presence in the field
  3. Market Forces – exposes investment in environmentally destructive projects
  4. Climate Works – works within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
  5. Extinction Rebellion – this one is for the protestors
  6. Planet Ark – good resource for finding ways to reduce impact on the planet.


  1. How do you feel about climate change? Are you angry? Do you feel despair? Are you hopeful – and if so what type of hope? Other feelings?
  2. A 2010 academic study called the Myth of the Ethical Consumerfound that most consumers consistently overstate their allegiance to social or ecologically-sound products. How willing are you to commit to your “green” ideals? What are you prepared to give up to be green? (This is a  follow on from discussion in our last class).
  3. Have you investigated your superannuation fund’s allegiance with the fossil fuel industry? Would you consider changing your super if you could see the impact your investments are having? E.g. https://impact.pengana.com/#impact-map
  4. What activist actions are you prepared to take on? Do you want to be sent petitions to sign online when they become available? Write to politicians? Join in protests? Donate to organisations that know what they’re doing (like the climate council – but there are others). If not, why not? 
  5. Can you give an example where ethical consumerism has worked? (NOTE: Be wary of greenwashing). https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html


Further Resources

Ten simple ways to act on climate change


Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference

Is your money fuelling climate change? How to understand investment in fossil fuels.
https://www.responsiblereturns.com.au/responsible-investing-news/how-to-understand-investment-in-fossil-fuels (NOTE – not all ethical super funds are represented on this site)

Market Forces – where does your bank stand?


Hot Mess, Episode 4 – Hope, Radio National, 24th May, 2020