"Within the climate movement there is the capacity for individual action, when organised, to have a wider societal influence"Bill Oxford/Unsplash

Climate change is an issue which is only increasing in importance, and is one which will undoubtedly define our future. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a climate crisis as soon as 2040, there has been a lot of discussion about how we can most effectively prevent this. There exists the need for large-scale systemic change, such as targeting the fossil fuel companies that produce 71% of carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, many doubt the effectiveness of individual action, arguing that individual actions are not effective enough and could even harm the climate movement by shifting the pressure that should be on corporations and governments onto individuals. In the eyes of these climate activists, individual action has no correlation with wider societal action.

However, this presents a very reductive view of individual action. It assumes that individual actions happen in a vacuum and have no wider effect on society – that one person deciding to cut out meat from their diet and walk to work instead of taking the bus does reduce their carbon footprint, but has no further impact than that. In other social movements, the importance of individual action is acknowledged due to its capacity to snowball and lead to larger social change, ultimately influencing government policy. Why don’t we acknowledge the same capacity in individual climate action?

With the climate movement, there is the potential for organised individual action to have a wider societal influence: an individual changing their actions causes others around them to rethink theirs, and the spread of sustainable lifestyles among individuals creates new social norms – a strong force which can influence policy and society at large. Rather than absolving corporations and governments of responsibility, we amplify it by making sustainability a central part of our lifestyles, ultimately increasing the pressure on corporations and governments.

“We must persistently encourage individual action in our communities to see the systemic change we seek”

For example, a 2012 study investigating how eco-friendly behaviour spreads throughout a community found that every household in a community that installed solar panels increased the odds of another household in the same community following suit. Furthermore, if the solar panels on a household were more visible, they had a bigger influence on the community, demonstrating that individual behaviour influences how others act. This is the ripple effect: the idea that individual choices send out ripples which cause others to reconsider their habits and actions. Individual climate action signals to others that certain behaviours are harmful, and small changes in behaviour can have significant societal impacts. Not only does individual action ripple throughout communities, but it also encourages governments to keep subsidising solar panels and to make solar energy a key player in their future energy mix.

While not everyone can be Greta Thunberg and capture the world’s attention, we each ultimately have a responsibility to protect our planet. Brushing off individual action only leads to complacency. The solution is clear—we must persistently encourage individual action in our communities to see the systemic change we seek. If we are able to provide individuals with information on what actions they can take in order to have the most impact, and encourage others within our communities to do the same, we can ensure that individual action has a widespread impact.


Mountain View

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Cascade is an app developed by Cambridge students, and is committed to the ripple effect. There is a vast amount of research on the internet about climate change, sustainability, and carbon footprints. If an individual is dedicated enough, they can sift through this to find the most useful information and understand exactly how much their actions will impact the environment. The average person, however, wants to find easy solutions. Our app aims to streamline the process by analysing climate change data to find effective actions users can take, and combines this with behavioural research to encourage its users to become committed to a sustainable lifestyle. It translates environmental problems into practical steps that individuals can take to make a real impact.

Influencing human behaviour is a key part of the project. The ripple effect is about the collective impact of individual actions, and we hope to achieve this by creating a community committed to sustainability. By analysing human behaviour and how habits develop, we are able to understand the ways in which we can consistently help everyday individuals to achieve their goals. You can find out more about the project via our website here, where you can also watch some videos explaining our concept and the ways in which you can support the project.