Antiracist Corner: How Individual Action Distracts from Systemic Issues

Have you ever been told to recycle or else plastic will end up in the ocean? Or have you seen ads that said you’re wasting too much energy just because you forgot to turn off the light switch? If so, you’ve heard prime examples of individual action. Individual action, in the context of environmentalism and pollution, refers to solutions that one person chooses to do through their own personal decisions, including replacing their lightbulbs or driving an electric car. Although these environmentalism individual actions may help the environment, they do so in minimal amounts (compared to collective action) and distract from the bigger systemic issues causing pollution. 

Let’s look at one individual action as an example: driving an electric car.  The point of purchasing an electric car is to reduce your carbon emissions and contributions to air pollution. Even though an electric car does do that, it would take almost everyone in the world to do the same in order to make an impact large enough to actually put a dent in global carbon emissions (which is the real goal). Also, buying an electric car is not an accessible option for everyone, like many other individual actions, because some people cannot afford to buy an electric car. 

Although often placed on the individual, the responsibility of environmental issues actually belongs to corporations that fuel our capitalist, industrial economy. And continuing to promote and practice individual actions without collective action lets these companies go unscrutinized. This hurts marginalized communities because they keep systems of racism and classism in place. For example, putting off/not engaging in/not demanding collective action allows air pollution to continue to have greater impacts on these communities, such as by letting companies still use low-income neighborhoods of color as their landfills without any consequences.

The same thing applies to noise pollution! Oftentimes communities or individuals themselves are blamed for the noise in their area because it shifts attention from the fact that it is the fault of powerful corporations, greedy companies, and gentrification (see previous“Gentrification and Noise Pollution”) which all prioritize new developments and construction over local residents, especially if they are minorities. 

Noise pollution, like other forms of pollution, is more likely to be experienced by marginalized communities (see “Inequities of Noise Pollution” by Nandi Ndoro for further information). Instead of telling these communities to “keep it down,” or just put on some ear plugs, or any other individual actions, everyone (including privileged people) should enact collective action. Collective action that targets systems looks like lobbying, protesting, and other resistance tactics. They target powerful corporations, systemic issues like disproportionate noise pollution in marginalized communities, and achieve long lasting environmental change. One way to do that would be to pressure government officials to recognize how to include more marginalized communities, for example by creating laws that prohibit companies from starting new construction in these areas without the community’s sanctioned approval or consideration in mind. This combats noise pollution on a larger scale while also combating the issue of disregarding marginalized voices.