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Opinion: Why we need to stop talking about straws and start breaking laws.


Plastic Pollution is a huge environmental problem, and it is right and necessary that it has gained as much political and public attention as it has.

Quitting straws, moving to reusable coffee cups, swapping out plastic bags for canvas ones, and waving goodbye to cling film is important, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think this makes us environmentally conscious individuals, and tackles the pressing problem of climate change.

The Bigger Picture

According to the latest IPCC report the following sectors contribute the most to global greenhouse gas emissions: industry (21%), electricity and heat production (25%), transportation (14%) and agriculture, forestry and land use (24%).

These figures are important. Not because they remove the responsibility of the individual, but because they scream out that we need a total system change if we want to avoid the kind of climate catastrophe that we are currently running towards.

Individual action needs to be put back under the microscope, and we need to think critically about the kind of actions we are taking if we really want to be part of the revolution.

There are absolutely significant benefits and positive reasons for taking individual action, and that has to be the starting point for societal change. But we have to go further, and it has to happen sooner.

Why Individual Action Has to Stay

Individual action is still important, in my opinion, for three reasons:

1. Individual actions reinforce the idea that change is possible. However small, however significant, by choosing to avert the normal and shift to more environmentally positive behaviours, individuals prove that genuine change is possible. And that kind of emotional shift is important not just for us as individuals but for society as a whole.

2. Individual actions spark conversations with the disengaged. People are inherently curious, and metal straws tend to grab their attention. Opening up space to discuss the environmental impact of our actions is undeniably important, and often more impactful than a facebook post, a political speech, or a road blockade. Real, honest, and open conversations can have immeasurable impact on our daily lives.

3. And individual actions do make a difference. Deciding to go vegetarian can literally cut your personal carbon footprint in half. Deciding to limit your air time can also slice your carbon footprint. And going zero-waste can minimise your lasting impact on our dying planet. These are all admirable and necessary changes that we need to make if we want to retain a healthy planet. But they really do have to be as radical as this, otherwise we are barely scratching the surface of this enormous challenge.

Why Individual Action Is A Cop Out.

Under no circumstances am I suggesting that we all start drinking petrol because individual changes don’t matter. But it is an unfortunate reality that our individual changes won’t fix the problem. Focusing on single use plastics gives us an easy way out, and quitting straws distracts us from the enormous crisis at play. We have to do more, and we have to start talking about the system as a whole – not just our messed up oceans.

So what can we do?

1. Start a campaign.

Take climate action to your workplace, your community, your school or your local Tesco. Find those with decision making power, and demand that they make a change. It doesn’t have to take a lot of people, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but if we can change the minds of our local MPs, Mayors, Teachers and Merchants then we can set important precedent for change elsewhere; starting a bottom-up movement which forces national governments to listen.

2. Join a movement.

Find like-minded climate campaigners through regional and national movements. Not only will this give you the energy and support you need to get radical, but we have strength in numbers and building a movement is important. These groups help shift the public narrative, put pressure on decision makers, and pave the way for a system change with ordinary people at its heart. Young people have proven this is possible. Don’t be a bystander any longer.  

3. Break the Law.

Before I say anything the following disclaimers need to be made:  

  • Breaking the law is not possible for everyone, it tends to be safer for those with  certain privileges and that should be made clear from the start.

  • I am not, by any means, encouraging people to go out and set fire to petrol stations (although that would be rad) - I am purely talking about civil disobedience.

  • There are ways to contribute to arrestable action without fear of arrest, through social media, police liaisons and support roles. Which are equally valuable and important.

For these reasons, at UKYCC we currently don't do arrestable action as an organisation because we want to maintain a safe space for anyone to campaign for climate justice. But our members are free to choose to take part in civil disobedience on their own time - and many do.

Because if you can, and if you are willing, the kind of systems change we need requires current systems to fail. And that means filling up our police stations and streets until the system is jammed, overworked, and unsustainable. Only then, will government listen, and only then will they be forced to act.

It worked for the Suffragettes, and it worked for the Civil Rights movement, and we are in that crisis point of history again. Civil disobedience is looking like the only viable option to evoke the kind of change we need to see.

It’s scary, frankly, but so is the collapse of the climate. So yes, we can start with straws, but as quickly as you can, let’s move to breaking laws.

If you are looking for some actions and workshops to get involved with in the coming months, here are some to check out:


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