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Climate Action

How imperfect environmentalists can drive action on climate change 

glass planet in a forest with sunshine in a story about being an imperfect environmentalist

Imperfect environmentalists can drive change through even the smallest of actions. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sheila M Morovati
Founder & President, Habits of Waste
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Climate Crisis

  • Climate anxiety is growing, with a survey showing that 59% of people aged 16-25 are very or extremely worried about the state of the planet.
  • However, there are many effective ways for individuals to inspire change and protect the planet by taking action, no matter how big or small.
  • Here's how being an 'imperfect environmentalist' can drive climate action through changing habits and leveraging the power of consumerism.

This is the year to become an 'imperfect environmentalist’. Climate anxiety is growing and it is a very real issue that many people are facing.

The American Psychology Association (APA) describes climate anxiety, often called eco-anxiety, as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations”.

A recent study on climate anxiety surveyed young people aged 16-25 to gauge their feelings about climate change and their governments' responses. Participants were found to be overwhelmingly worried about climate change, with 84% reporting moderate worry, and 59% saying they were very or extremely worried.

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The research also revealed a variety of emotional responses including sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt in 50% of respondents, with 45% reporting that these emotions negatively impacted their daily life and functioning.

Three-quarters (75%) of those surveyed find the future frightening, and 83% think that we have failed to take care of the planet. We owe younger generations a future – yet many of us feel too overwhelmed to even know where to start in the face of the immensity of the climate crisis.

Imperfect environmentalism as a catalyst for change

Studies show that easing climate anxiety is done by taking action. Imperfect environmentalists are people who may not identify as full-fledged environmentalists, but are willing to help by living more sustainably “most” of the time. This helps individuals shift their mindset from “I’m only one person” to “I can start the ripple effect for change”.

Imperfect environmentalism is a movement rooted in social science and human behaviour research, that seeks to fight climate change and rising climate anxiety through influencing micro and macro actions and values.

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This means that we want to see grassroots actions and a collective shift in the behaviour of the masses to reduce waste and have better habits, while simultaneously putting pressure on large corporations and legislators to create lasting change.

I have personally spearheaded several global movements that have changed the way we look at our wastefulness via both my environmental non-profit organizations Habits of Waste and Crayon Collection.

There are effective ways for individuals to make the change and protect our planet by creating new systems and by inspiring people to take action, no matter how big or small. This movement offers the guilt-free opportunity for the masses to begin where they can instead of striving for perfection, which tends to paralyse people into inaction.

Being an imperfect environmentalist can drive action on climate change.
Being an imperfect environmentalist can drive action on climate change. Image: Habits of Waste

We often hear that we need billions of people to help in the reversal of climate change instead of a small handful of people doing it perfectly and imperfect environmentalism is the catalyst to bring about this uprising.

Yale researchers highlight the benefit of social support systems for our mental well-being, especially as it relates to climate worry. By lowering the barrier of entry for climate action by embracing imperfection, we make it easier for individuals to join this collective and create positive associations with climate action.

We need a different approach to individual climate action – one that more closely ties personal choices to systemic change and fights anxiety and apathy. By lowering the barrier of entry to environmental action, we can create an incredible collective effort to fight the climate crisis.

How Habits of Waste encouraged consumers to influence change

At Habits of Waste, for example, we created a bridge between everyday individuals and these larger entities such as Amazon, Walmart, Uber Eats, Hollywood Studios and local and state legislators in the US.

Several thousand people sent pre-written emails to these corporations and government entities demanding change to make it easier for millions of users to “do better”. These emails took less than two minutes for individuals to send, giving consumers incredible power to influence change.

There are countless other opportunities like this for activism within Habits of Waste, from requesting sustainable packaging from the biggest online retailers to calling for sustainable swaps in film and television.

It is no longer an “all or nothing” mindset. For example, studies show that the single most important action individuals can take is to eat more plant-based meals. Since many people are unable to adopt a fully vegan diet, it is worth highlighting broadly that an “imperfect” vegan diet still has a great impact.

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Researchers from Oxford University and University of Michigan both confirm that if western cultures cut their consumption of animal products by around 40%-50% we create enough of a carbon offset to actually combat climate change.

To make this finding more approachable for the public we deduced that a 40% reduction of animal products results in eight plant-based meals a week. If we each swapped just eight meals a week to plant-based meals, we could reduce a significant amount of methane gas emissions and offer individuals an attainable commitment that averts failure.

This is the basis of Habits of Waste’s #8meals campaign, and inspiration for what imperfect and accessible environmental action looks like in pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle.

No action is too small when it comes to tackling climate change

Imperfect environmentalism posits the idea that solving the climate crisis will require action across a spectrum of sizes, with no action too small to count.

We create a “snowball effect” for change by using our voices. The normalization of sustainable action will underpin a societal shift towards a deeper value system towards sustainability, where our widely accepted habits and practices become those that protect the planet.

Structural causes of climate change such as global economic dependence on fossil fuels and industrial and manufacturing waste remain a critical focus. One accessible solution for this issue is shifting default settings.

For example, Habits of Waste’s #CutOutCutlery campaign convinced all major food delivery services to globally change their default settings so that single-use plastic cutlery is made available upon request only.

By changing the default to an environmentally friendly option, we can help people take environmental action even if they do not identify as environmentalists. Chinese researchers corroborate the efficacy of this work. In a study on a major food delivery app in China, the green nudge of changing default settings reduced the number of orders including plastic cutlery by 648%.

Many companies can also more easily reach their environment, social and governance goals by choosing eco-friendly default settings in products like Google Maps and Nest, as users will automatically default to a sustainable choice that was made for them.

Individuals hold the power for incredible change with effective action. Think of the community you live in, or your circle of friends.

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Could your family eat plant-based eight times a week? Could you find a group of people at your school or workplace to cycle or take public transit together?

Can you and a few friends convince your local officials to require restaurants to offer straws with drinks only when requested as Habits of Waste did with Los Angeles, California? Or perhaps even spearhead a ban on plastic straws and cutlery like Habits of Waste did in Malibu, California, which happened to be the first one in history.

Just because action starts small doesn't mean it can’t make a difference. Let’s create a change, together.

To learn more about “imperfect environmentalism” and the work of Habits of Waste, read Sheila Morovati’s book Imperfect Environmentalist, which is released on 16 April, 2024.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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