A few years ago, I was invited to a summer party at a publishing house in Amsterdam. It was a gorgeous, sun-drenched afternoon in the courtyard garden of the listed historic building, and I wandered through the crowd in a bit of a daze. The guest list read like a who’s who in progressive Amsterdam. Prominent thinkers and writers, famous names I remembered from my own reading list from high school, were casually strolling past.
After the first drinks, it was time for dinner. The menu: asparagus with potatoes and ham. I don’t eat meat, so I wasn’t really happy with the plate that was served to me. Glancing around, I realised that I was apparently the only one. I asked the waiter if a vegetarian option was available. “Would you prefer to eat fish?”
An uncomfortable silence fell. I sipped my drink while the rest of the table dug into their dinners and the kitchen staff came up with something for me to eat. There I was, surrounded by the intellectual elite of the Netherlands, including major literary figures who had penned massive, carefully crafted volumes addressing the biggest challenges of our times, from climate change to the mass extinction of species. And I was the only one who didn’t eat animals.
Maybe my observations weren’t accurate, or maybe I was just sitting at the wrong table, but I have often thought back to that moment. Shouldn’t these people, with all their knowledge and lofty ideals, have stopped eating meat ages ago?
Helping the environment does not start with the individual – that slogan has gained momentum among progressive opinion-makers in recent years. We would have to change the world first. “Conscious consumption is a cop-out,” David Wallace-Wells argued last year in The New York Times: “People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.”
I must confess that I’m fairly susceptible to this line of thinking. Isn’t it excruciating to hear conservative gurus talk about “individual responsibility” while completely disregarding structural poverty, inequality and their sheer blind luck? Isn’t it infuriating to hear Shell, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola talk about minimising your footprint, eating healthy foods and exercising while they themselves earn billions from oil, fast food and ridiculously sugary drinks?
Is there also a left-wing indulgence?
It could be considered “the right-wing indulgence”: when any structural injustice comes up, just shout that success is a choice and people have to take personal responsibility.
But since that afternoon in Amsterdam, I have been wondering if the opposite could also be true. Is there also a left-wing indulgence?
I’m talking about the idealist who, as soon as personal responsibility comes up, starts shouting that we have to talk about the structures before anything else. That we first need an analysis showing that it can all be blamed on the fossil industry and the multinationals, advertisements and algorithms, capitalism and neoliberalism – anything and everything that lets us avoid looking in the mirror.
Helping the environment also starts in your own home
Where does change start anyway?
You don’t have to be a professor to understand that this is the wrong question. Change can start anywhere. On your plate and in the factory, at home and at work, in your home town and in the national government, in the boardroom and at your uncle’s birthday party. The plain truth is that it’s not remotely possible to pick apart individuals and systems into discrete categories. They are completely intertwined.
I’ll make my point more tangibly by introducing what I would, with some pomp and circumstance, like to call the First Law of Social Change: our behaviour is contagious.
Take solar panels. A few years ago, Google launched Project Sunroof, a website that lets you see who has solar panels in your neighbourhood. One thing is immediately noticeable: the solar panels are not distributed randomly across a neighbourhood, but appear (like a virus) in clusters. If you install solar panels, your neighbours are much more likely to put them on their roof too.
Helping the environment also starts with you, precisely because people are fundamentally social creatures
Not long ago, research by two US economists showed that generating green electricity is even more contagious than drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. The bigger and more visible your renewable energy systems are, the more people will imitate you. And that can have other consequences as well. Increased demand for more solar panels means higher profits for companies trading in solar panels, which also strengthens the green lobby and makes it more likely that green legislation will be adopted. Before you know it, the personal becomes political.
And yes, this reasoning also holds true for veggie burgers, train holidays, electric cars, and all sorts of other choices. Buying more veggie burgers makes vegetarian alternatives to meat more profitable, so sustainable food producers have more money to fund innovation, which makes the vegetarian alternatives even better, so more people eat the veggie burgers, which also strengthens the political lobby for vegetarian food companies, boosting support for a tax on meat – and so on.
Psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler refer to this phenomenon as our “Three Degrees of Influence”. Our behaviour influences not only our friends (the first degree) but also their friends (the second degree) and their friends’ friends (the third degree). In other words, if you buy a veggie burger or go to a climate protest today, you will also be influencing people who you will never meet.
Numerous studies show that the “dynamic spread” theory presented by Christakis and Fowler holds true for all sorts of things: happiness, smoking, voting, generosity, obesity, willingness to vaccinate, the list goes on. In essence, you would have to have a hyper-individualistic view of people to think that you can’t make a difference as an individual. Helping the environment also starts with you, precisely because people are fundamentally social creatures.
Before you point a finger at others, take a good look in the mirror
Of course, I could just as easily reverse that whole chain of logic: green legislation leads to more profit for sustainable food producers, and more profit leads to more innovation and better veggie burgers, making even more people buy those delicious veggie burgers, and so on. But the fact that I can reason it both ways is exactly the point. There is no single starting point, no default origin, because social contagion works in all directions.
We can even boost our signal to increase coverage. That brings us to the Second Law of Social Change: setting a better example to inspire even more people. In other words: practise what you preach.
If there’s one thing that cynics comprehend better than many idealists, it’s how deadly hypocrisy can be. People without principles are always obsessed with the hypocrisy of people who do believe in something. TV host Tucker Carlson in the US, star of Fox News and frequently mentioned as a successor to Donald Trump, is an excellent example. His latest book, Ship of Fools (2018), devotes an entire chapter to climate change. Here, Carlson doesn’t really position himself as a climate denier or as an opponent of the energy transition – he’s not interested in any of that. His focus is on the hypocrisy of people who pretend to care.
Al Gore and his palatial home. Hillary Clinton and her private jets. Leonardo di Caprio, who took a private jet from Cannes to New York and back again the next day, flying 12,000km to receive a green award from a clean water advocacy group. The response from the progressive side: but that’s not the point; DiCaprio’s emissions are “a fart in the wind when it comes to climate change”.
But of course it matters. DiCaprio’s hypocrisy undermines his effectiveness as a climate activist. Worse still, his behaviour influences others: people who see that a world-famous film star has no problem with luxury yachts and private jets are more likely to indulge in a cheap flight to a sunny destination or book a trip on a polluting cruise ship. This means more revenue for cruise ship and airline companies, a stronger lobby against green legislation, and so on.
Thunberg is the most effective climate activist of our time because she refuses to lie to herself
So how should it be done? Let’s look at the most effective climate activist of our time: Greta Thunberg. To this Swedish teenager, it is crystal clear that we are on an ecological collision course and we need a massive transformation of the whole economy. But before she pointed fingers at others, she looked in the mirror. She stopped eating meat. She stopped eating dairy. She decided not to fly any more, and managed to convince her mother (a famous opera singer) to do the same. The Thunberg family bought solar panels and an electric car, which they use as little as possible.
Then and only then did she start her “school strike for climate”, which has become world famous.
Thunberg is the most effective climate activist of our time because she refuses to lie to herself. Her protest is not a hobby, not a vanity project, not a profitable business model with lucrative sponsorship deals and speaking engagements. Maybe that’s why cynics like Tucker Carlson have such a hard time cornering her. Where DiCaprio went to pick up his environmental award in a private jet, Thunberg crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat. When the audience interrupted her address to the United Nations with thunderous applause, she looked irritated rather than flattered: she wasn’t there to get their approval.
In a recent interview, Thunberg emphasised the importance of collective and individual action. The headline: “Greta Thunberg hears your excuses. She is not impressed.” She explained why she doesn’t want to fly around the world. “[I]t’s all about sending a signal that we are in a crisis and that in a crisis you change behaviour. If no one breaks this chain of ‘I won’t do this, because no one else is doing anything’ and ‘Look at them. They’re doing much worse than I am’ – if everyone keeps on going like that, then no one will change.”
It didn’t take long for newspapers to proclaim the advent of the “Thunberg effect”. Her protest went viral, children persuaded their parents to make more of an effort, companies started spending much more money on sustainability, and politicians announced grand plans. The world is too complex to say what would have happened without Thunberg. But no one can deny that she has had an enormous impact.
The next step: get radical
Maybe it’s not all that surprising that the world-famous Swedish schoolgirl became a vegan first, and only then went on a school strike. Taking action doesn’t just facilitate the dynamic spread to others – it also influences you.
That brings us to the Third Law of Social Change: setting a good example can radicalise yourself. People who stop eating meat might also start questioning whether they should be eating dairy. People who fly less often may be more likely to vote for a green party. People who purchase solar panels might think about taking part in a climate protest as well. Everything is connected, also at this level. Practising what you preach can make you more committed to your own cause.
I experienced this when I finally stopped eating animals four years ago. At first, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t all that difficult. I was late to the party on this one, and since many brave vegetarians had gone before me (leading to more and more investments in vegetarian innovation, and making those veggie burgers much tastier), a meatless diet was relatively easy to manage. I also liked the fact that some people in my circle of friends stopped eating meat as well – could I have contributed to their decision?
But what I hadn’t thought about beforehand was that I was soon faced with the next challenge. The more I read about it, the more I realised that I really should stop eating dairy too. And that was a lot harder.
Why do ideals have to be fun too?
This brings us to the Fourth and, promise, final Law of Social Change: setting the best example is the hardest part.
History shows us why. It’s considered socially acceptable these days for mothers to work outside the home, but in the 1950s there was widespread resistance to the very idea. These days, it’s not considered an act of courage to ask a smoker to go outside before lighting up, but in the 1950s – when everyone smoked – you would have been laughed out of the room. It’s still considered brave for a young person to come out as LGBTQ+, but 50 years ago it was even braver.
A lot of our consumer activism today is easy, comparatively speaking. Solar panels and electric cars are contagious, and that’s great, but the well-educated middle class also tends to assuage their conscience with – let’s say – grass-fed “natural meat” from free-range herds in eco-friendly holiday homes on an island off the coast. In fact, these people often emit more carbon.
A good rule of thumb: if your ideals do not require sacrifice, then they’re probably not very significant. Obviously, not everyone has the same capacity to contribute. The more wealth, power and knowledge you have, the greater your sacrifices should be.
A good rule of thumb: if your ideals do not require sacrifice, then they’re probably not very significant
Serious ideals cause real pain, as vegans clearly experience: a Canadian study in 2015 showed that public opinion about vegans was even more negative than about atheists, immigrants and homosexuals. The only group that was even more despised were drug addicts. Where does all this hatred come from? Psychologists think that the principles embraced by vegans – even if they’re eating their packed lunches in silence – are perceived by many people as a personal attack. Deep inside, we fear that they are right, and little is more confronting than the courage of others.
Because shame is so uncomfortable, it’s tempting to conclude that it’s also ineffective. In recent years, there has been a caravan of columnists who dismissed “flight shame” and “meat shame” as toxic.
But I don’t think that analysis holds up, historically speaking. The fact that more and more people turned away from smokers was a crucial prelude to the ban on indoor smoking. The fact that more and more companies were shamed with their lack of diversity led, in some countries, to mandatory quota of women in leadership positions. Even now, flight shaming is intensifying the call for an aviation tax, just as more meat-shaming could increase support for a meat tax. (A ban on meat is unthinkable now, but so was a ban on indoor smoking 50 years ago.)
No, when people reject the concept of shaming air travel, meat, cappuccinos, cruise ships, barbecues, cheese and/or Uber, they mainly mean that it gives them an unpleasant feeling. And yes, shame feels bad. But what if that’s exactly how it’s supposed to feel? Who says changing the world should always be fun? Shame works because it’s unpleasant. Discomfort is the fuel of progress.
In addition to all our critical analyses of the bigger structures in society, it might be a good idea to look in the mirror a bit more often. We don’t have to be perfect, but we can make life harder for ourselves, even if it feels unpleasant, unfriendly and uncomfortable. “One of the most difficult things is not to change society,” Nelson Mandela said in his final year as president of South Africa, “but to change yourself.”
Translated from the Dutch by Joy Phillips.