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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The butterfly effect : the power of individual action to mitigate climate change Fleming, Jennifer


Over the years, various scholars in environmental politics have argued that individual action to mitigate climate change is marginal at best, and regressive at worst. According to their assessment, the ‘individualization of responsibility’ places the burden of climate change mitigation on individuals. These scholars also argue that the individualization of responsibility hinders the implementation of institutional solutions. These scholars have responded to a broader debate on what the role of the individual is in the fight against the climate crisis. This paper adds another voice to this debate by directly challenging the aforementioned scholars. First, I draw upon philosophical and socio-psychological scholarship to suggest that individual action is meaningful and can actually serve as a catalyst for institutional advancements. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that people contribute to collective realities through their individual action. Insights from behavioral contagion theory have subsequently shed light on how people affect the state of the collective through their individual actions. Humans rely on cues from others to determine how to act. When one person decides to engage in environmentally friendly behavior, such as eating less meat, it is likely that those around them will begin to engage in the behavior as well. To illustrate how the effects of behavioral contagion theory can be observed in the real world, I then document the rise of vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians in North America. This section provides empirical evidence for the value of personal action by analyzing how behavior change at the individual level has inspired businesses and governments to take action as well. Next, I propose an alternative theory of social change. The question of responsibility is not an either-or matter; rather, individuals and institutions reinforce each other in the fight against the climate crisis. Individuals signal to institutions through their actions that they are willing to take on costly actions to mitigate climate change. Institutions then take these signals and scale them up in ways that no individual can do alone. Throughout the paper, I argue that while institutional change is important, individual action can be a key component in unleashing institutional change.

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