Welcome to the sixth of our alumni bookshelf features, where we celebrate the creative endeavours of our alumni and the power of the written word. In this edition we hear from Sami Grover (German and Scandinavian Studies, 2001). Sami is the author of “We Are All Climate Hypocrites Now: How Embracing Our Imperfections Can Unlock the Power of a Movement” (New Society Publishers, September 2021). The book has been described as a “tour de force for hope and kindness.” At the bottom of the article you can see some images from climate protests in Hull.
Sami Grover is a writer, environmentalist, and Brand Development Manager for The Redwoods Group—a certified B Corp and mission-aligned insurance partner to community organizations like the YMCA, JCC, Boys & Girls Clubs, and non-profit camps. Previously, as creative director at The Change Creation, which strived to create good-for-the-world branding projects for businesses, Sami worked with clients including Larry’s Beans, Burt’s Bees, Canaan Fair Trade, and Jada Pinkett Smith/Overbrook Entertainment.
Sami is the author of “We Are All Climate Hypocrites Now: How Embracing Our Imperfections Can Unlock the Power of a Movement” (New Society Publishers, September 2021). The book has been described as a “tour de force for hope and kindness.”
There’s Only One Carbon Footprint that Matters: The Power and Limitations of Individual Action on Climate
Sometime around the new millennium, I met up with a small group of fellow students at the University of Hull. We marched down to a petrol station on Cottingham Road, and proceeded to hold a small but vocal protest about Big Oil’s complicity in the persecution of indigenous activists in the Niger Delta.
This was by no means the only ‘action’ I took part in during my time in Hull. As part of the People & Planet society, we campaigned for the university to purchase renewable energy. We traveled to plant trees above the town of Hebden Bridge—which even in the early 2000s was experiencing devastating climate-driven flooding. And we may or may not have been involved in a ‘Reclaim the Streets’ protest on Beverley Road.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and it’s tempting to ask what such efforts achieved. This past year alone, we’ve seen deadly flooding hit Germany and China. We’ve seen wildfire smoke span the entire continent of North America. And grassroots community groups are still working to protect Hebden Bridge from flooding.
This is not the future we envisioned.
On the plus side, however, attitudes do appear to be changing. In fact, a recent survey of young people around the world revealed that the majority now believe the climate crisis poses a real threat to their future.
The question then becomes: How can we turn this rising awareness into action? And, more importantly, how can we direct that action so it actually achieves results?
Who Is Responsible?
Whenever we talk about the climate emergency, it’s not too long before the conversation shifts to individual carbon footprints. And whether it’s going vegan, flying less, or buying an electric car, I know from experience that there is joy to be found in reducing your own personal impact.
The trouble is, however, that centering the conversation around voluntary behaviour change can easily become a distraction if it is not accompanied by a deliberate and explicit focus on systems-level reforms.
Just as the wealthiest among us cannot solve poverty by simply giving our money away, we as individual citizens cannot solve the climate emergency simply by changing what we eat or how we heat our homes. From taxes to planning laws, and from government subsidies to cultural norms, our society makes certain behaviors easy, cheap, and socially acceptable. Meanwhile, it makes other behaviors so expensive and onerously difficult that only the hardest of the hardcore can stay on the straight and narrow.
Why Individual Action Still Matters
When I first started working on my recent book, We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now, I intended to debunk the idea that individual action was central to creating change at all. I made a note to myself about what I thought was a useful analogy: the transatlantic slave trade didn’t end because people stopped eating sugar.
Yet it turns out that this is only half true.
In fact, while abolitionist hero and Hull native William Wilberforce was pushing for abolition in parliament, his efforts were supported by some 400,000 people in Britain who were actively boycotting slave-grown sugar. The key distinction to make, however, is that the abolitionists weren’t suggesting that nationwide abstinence from sugar was the ultimate solution to ending slavery. Instead, they were tactically pulling the lever of abstinence with a specific end goal in mind, and they were doing so as part of a broader set of strategies.
There’s a lesson here for the climate movement: We really need to keep our eye on the prize.
Riding our bikes isn’t really about reducing our own personal carbon footprint. Instead, it’s a social and political act that will help transform our cities. Similarly, reducing or eliminating how much we fly isn’t simply an expression of personal virtue. Instead, when coordinated with others who are doing the same—and supportive allies who are not yet ready to give up flying—it becomes a targeted effort to change the transportation options that are available to us.
So by all means, skip that next beef burger, or cancel that cheap flight. But then ask yourself this question: How can you magnify the impact of what you do so that it slashes the only carbon footprint that matters: That of society as a whole.
Sami Grover is an environmental blogger, branding specialist, and author of We Are All Climate Hypocrites Now. He once vowed never to fly again, and then promptly fell in love with a woman on the other side of the Atlantic. He has been flying ever since.