GEOG 30
Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Individual vs. Collective Action

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Your actions affect the environment. For example:

  • When you use a car, bus, or airplane, oil is burned, sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and changing the global climate. Fueling these vehicles also involves extracting oil from oil wells in the ground. (There are some exceptions: vehicles that use electricity or natural gas instead of oil, though both of these typically involve emitting greenhouse gases and extracting resources from the ground.)
  • When you eat meat or other animal products that come from “factory farms” – which is most meat/animal products sold in the United States – the farming process causes several environmental impacts, including deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emission.
  • When you choose where to live – including which city to live in and which neighborhood to live in within the city – there are several environmental impacts, including how much energy your residence and transportation uses and how heavily you will stress water supplies.
  • When you exercise your voice or your vote in a democracy, you influence the policies that the government will take, including policies it takes on the environment.

But for each of these actions, you’re not the only person doing it. Other people drive, ride buses and airplanes, eat meat and other animal products, choose certain cities and neighborhoods, and speak up and vote in any given democracy.

Individual action refers to the actions taken by one individual person, acting based on his or her personal decisions. Collective action refers to the actions taken by a collection or group of people, acting based on a collective decision. For example, if you choose to walk instead of drive, then you are taking an individual action. Or, if you are part of a neighborhood that chooses to install sidewalks to help people there walk more, then you are involved in a collective action. Collective action often involves larger scales, since there are more people involved. However, it is possible to take individual action on large-scale issues, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global climate change.

One question that often comes up in the context of collective action, especially for big global environmental issues, is: Given that there are so many other people whose actions are affecting the issue, what difference do my own individual actions make?  The answer is that an individual’s actions almost always still make a difference, even if there are many other people involved. For example, if you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, there will be less climate change. To be sure, there still will be climate change. No one can prevent something as big as climate change without any collective action. But there will be less climate change, and that is something we can care about.

But an individual can also influence what collective actions are made. When you get involved in your government, or your neighborhood, or an organization, or even just a group of friends or family, you often influence what actions other people take. Likewise, other people are often influencing what actions you take. There are specific steps you can take to influence collective action. We’ll learn some of these later in this module.