The Role of the Individual

We wish to learn:

  • What responsibilities should each individual accept within the great challenges of sustainability and equity?

  • What contributions can individual make within the great challenges of sustainability and equity?

  • What specific roles can you envision for yourself, over your lifetime, to help make a more sustainable and equitable Earth?

Jump to: [Introduction] [Moral Responsibility] [Sustainability] [Consumption] [Are There Positive Signs?] [What Can I Do?]

Format for printing

"there is something fundamentally wrong in treating the earth as if it was a business in liquidation" - economist Herman Daly

          "a world divided cannot stand; humanity cannot survive partly rich and mostly poor"  - Egyptian scholar Ismail Serageldin


Today’s topic focuses on the role of the individual, and what each of us can or should do to make a personal contribution towards a sustainable planet.  This lecture-hour is intended to stimulate class discussion.  We would like to know what you, educated young adults, think about your role in addressing issues of Global Change.  After all, you will inherit this Earth and share responsibility for its stewardship.  You are already well along the road to being particularly well educated on this topic.  Please come to class prepared to discuss what you consider to be the two or three most critical issues for each of us, as individuals, to consider.

To set the stage, these notes present some thoughts from one professor who has had an interest in these issues over his career.  Some of these thoughts are optimistic, some are skeptical.  Each of the faculty who participates in the Global Change Program likely has some differing opinions, and we’re sure you do as well.  We’d like to hear from you.

Moral Responsibility

We can look back over history, or in present time across cultures, and agree that some practices are deeply wrong, and we are relieved that we as a society agree these practices are wrong. Slavery and apartheid, for example. What practices might we accept without question today, which more enlightened societies 200 years in the future could view as morally repugnant?

Consider the following indicators of global inequality:

  • The top 20% of the world’s population consumes 85% of the world’s income
  • A generation ago, people on the top 20% were 30 times as rich as people in the bottom 20%. Today they are 70 times as rich.
  • Of the 1233 drugs approved in the past decade, only 11 were for treating tropical diseases, and of these half were intended for livestock, not humans

Consider this quote:

"In the 19th century, some people looked at the condition of slavery and said it was monstrous and unconscionable – that it must be abolished. … Today the condition of hunger in a world of plenty is equally monstrous and unconscionable and must be abolished."

- Ismail Serageldin, Science Magazine, 5 April 2002 (Vol 296 p 55 "World poverty and hunger – the challenge for science")

What is your reaction? Is each of us complicit? What might you or I do about it?


Economic development is needed to abolish the widespread conditions of poverty, and its accompanying human toll of illiteracy, ill health, and stunted opportunity. Yet if the developing countries attain a level of affluence equivalent to the USA, we will need four more planets (that’s probably an approximation) to support them. Enter sustainable development, with some mix of new efficiencies, changes in attitudes and consumption, and more equitable distribution of resources to allow a better life for the planet’s majority of poor, and yet ensure that our children’s children inherit an Earth that can sustain them. This is a powerful idea, now most commonly called sustainability, to avoid the unfortunate connotation of growth and instead imply transformation.

Here are several statements about sustainability. Do you prefer one over another?  Why?

  • "satisfy human needs and improve the quality of human life" World Conservation Strategy (IUCN/UNEP/WWF 1980)
  • "seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future"  Our Common Future (Brundtland Report, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) 
  • "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems"  Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Development (IUCN/UNEP/WWF 1991)
Three types of equity are often mentioned in sustainability discussions.  Would you give any one of these lower ranking?  Which?  Why?
  • equity among social and racial groups within a nation, in access to quality of life and freedom from the adverse effects of pollution (intra-societal social and environmental justice)
  • equity among nations, in access to quality of life and freedom from the adverse effects of pollution (inter-societal social and environmental justice)
  • equity across generations, in access to quality of life and freedom from the adverse effects of pollution (inter-generational equity)
How do we balance goals of material advancement and social equity, aimed largely at the vast population of “have-nots” and “have-less”, with goals aimed at protecting and restoring the natural world and life diversity?  Should we add a fourth category of equity, as follows?
  • equity across life forms, assuring the right of life’s diversity to exist, not only for its extrinsic value to humankind, but for its intrinsic values as well


The people of the United States are formidable consumers.  With 4% of the world’s population...
  • We consume 25% of the world's daily oil consumption
  • We produce 25% of the worlds carbon emissions
  • we consume 40% of the world's gasoline and more paper, steel, aluminum, energy, water, and meat per capita than any other society on the planet. 
  • the average American produces twice as much garbage as the average European.
  • Recent scientific estimates indicate that at least four additional planets would be
  • needed if each of the planet's 6 billion inhabitants consumed at the level of the average U.S. citizen. 
Isn’t it true that we’d like:
  • Americans to consume less?
  • Citizens of poor countries to have a quality of life similar to ours?
  • Use of the Earth’s resources to be sustainable?
Hmmm…  might not be so easy after all.  Consider the following three graphs (and activate shields against incoming cynicism):
Figure 1.  A hypothetical relationship between affluence (horizontal axis) and either resource consumption or pollution production.  Rich nations and rich individuals consumer more and pollute more.  This seems to correspond with the view that we in the USA are responsible for much of the earth’s ills, as a consequence of our consumerism.

Figure 2.  The same graph, with some hypothetical “data”. 

Can differences in individual behavior radically alter the position of points on this graph?

Consider the following thoughts: 

  • Roughly half of all vehicles sold in the USA are SUV’s or light trucks, which produce more CO2 and pollutants per mile than alternative vehicles. How many individual consumers will buy little hybrid (gas-electric) vehicles?
  • How much of a difference does an individual’s lifestyle make?  Consider a vegetarian college student, whose four-year college education costs in excess of $50,000 (double if out-of-state). Those dollars provide heating and lighting for buildings, pay salaries of professors (who consume like anyone else), and required someone to work at some job to earn the money.  How many families of four in Viet Nam could live for four years on that amount?
There are two questions here:  do individuals have the will to change?  And how big a difference results from the changes that we can make as individuals?
Figure 3. A re-assessment of Figure 1.  Perhaps, if we can re-define quality of life, so that it is not so synonymous with affluence, and “bend” that curve downwards, we can arrive at a better place.

Are there Positive Signs?

Absolutely.  The upcoming lecture on the role of technology will showcase the enormous potential for the application of knowledge to show us how to be more efficient, consume less, and pollute less, while enjoying improvements in the human condition.  In a previous lecture on water, we saw that with each decade between 1950 and 2000, the estimated water consumption for the year 2000 declined.  Why?  Because industry and agriculture became more efficient, because it saved them money.  Agricultural productivity per unit land area has increased steadily, and hopefully will continue to do so.  The present administration does not appear to be particularly sensitive to climate change and other environmental issues, but industry is, and the people are.   Major industries, including manufacturers of automobiles and air conditioners, are beginning to prepare for a future in which they expect consumers to demand, directly or via government regulations, manufactured goods that are more friendly to the Earth.  These trends will accelerate – they must.

Click here for a table of good news

What can I do?

Can individuals make a difference? Absolutely. Each of us can modify our personal consumption, advocate for global sustainability and equity, contribute time and money, and more. But in this professor's view, some problems call for different kinds of individual actions - those that we make through the political process, and those that we make through professional careers. Consider how through individual action we might achieve the following:

  • Negotiate a global treaty to slow the rise of atmospheric CO2
  • Limit the destruction of the rain forests
  • Enhance food and water security of African nations
  • Halt the spread of AIDS
Such problems require scientific knowledge, technical expertise, and the collective actions of nations.  They require the collective activities of individuals over lifetimes.  We also need educated professionals, political leaders, activists and specialists.  And without an educated and engaged populace – each one an individual – such difficult problems cannot be solved, because they won't have the will of the public behind them.  In fact, there may be nothing we cannot solve through knowledge and commitment.  The challenges of global environmental change can and should mobilize a generation – yours – to chart the path towards better sustainability and stewardship.

Being an educated consumer is an important part of individual action. When you see products and services advertised as "green," "organic," and "eco-friendly," you should know what their benefits and costs really are, and find out for yourself if you should support them. One place to look for this information is the "Consumers Union guide to environmental labels."

Finally, there are many good reasons to take individual responsibility.  Here are some – please add to the list.

  • By taking individual responsibility, one “walks the talk”, setting a positive example and  bringing legitimacy to the call for change on the part of others.
  • By taking individual responsibility, one enhances one’s own commitment, and prepares oneself to take that commitment to another level. 
  • By taking individual responsibility, one makes a real contribution, which, collectively, can make a difference

"Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"
-Margaret Mead

Changing the way we collectively view the world surely won’t be easy. It is common to look at negative trends, project them into the future, and sound the alarm that everything is just getting worse and worse. But isn’t that an awfully simplistic line of reasoning, just extending the present into the future? Forecasting what the world will be like 50 years from now is fun, but notoriously unsuccessful.  

Consider: the following events have happened in your lifetime, and were either unimaginable at the time you were born, or perhaps imaginable only in the vaguest way:

  • the end of the Soviet Union
  • the origin of the internet
  • desktop computers came into wide use
  • AIDS emerged as a serious disease
  • smoking ceased to be fashionable

Can we help to shape that unforeseeable future?  Simply by asking tough questions (Why does it have to be this way?), and visioning what might be, perhaps we are engaged in the process of developing an alternative logic for the way the world should be. Messy, perhaps, and highly random. Possibly we are doing just that, right now.

Now it is your turn:  what do you see as the role of the individual, and how will you prepare yourself for a life in which you make a positive contribution to the issues of Global Environmental Change?

All materials © 2001 by the University of Michigan.