By Sarah J. Morath*
You don’t need to be an elected official, a CEO, or a celebrity like Leonardo DiCaprio to create environmental change. You don’t even need to be an adult. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg illustrates that individual action by everyday individuals, matters. What began with a lone school girl sitting on the steps of the Swedish parliament instead of at her desk quickly grew into a movement. Climate change discussions have resumed and E.U. nations have responded. Greta’s singular action, while seemingly insignificant, was meaningful when collectively amplified.
The assertion that individuals together can bring about change is nothing new. Collective individual action has been critical to the success of every social movement over the past century, and its importance to the environmental movement should not be discounted. For more than a decade, scholars and scientists have reiterated the important role individuals play in solving the most pressing environmental problems: climate change, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution. Even the authors of the landmark environmental statutes of the 1970s, such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, understood the importance of individual action, as the citizen suit provisions show.
Individuals matter. The “Greta effect” is real, but striking is not the only option for individuals. In addition to striking, individuals can sue, support, spend, share, and ultimately steer decision makers, businesses, and each other to advance environmental goals. Collectively, individual action can help create the environmental change we so desperately seek.
The Global Climate Strike, the first of its kind, grew out of Greta’s weekly one-person protest over her country’s failure to reduce CO2 emissions and meet Paris Agreement goals. News outlets report that 6 million people joined the September 20, 2019 strike, almost six times the number of people who went on strike with Greta in March and May of this year, and far surpassing the turnout for the People’s Climate March in 2014 and the 2017 March for Science. On September 20, children were not the only ones striking. The day before the strike, Amazon tweeted that 1,500 Amazon and 700 Google tech workers were walking out in support of the Global Climate Strike.
While striking can involve marching, a strike differs from a march because it includes the additional decision by the person striking to miss something required (e.g., school or work). By not showing up for work or school, strikers hope their concerns will not only be heard but acted upon. And its use in the environmental movement is new and promising.
Long before global climate strikes, citizens went to court to make their voices heard. The citizen suit provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and others allow everyday individuals to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it fails to perform a statutory duty or act. “Impact litigation” of this kind uses the judicial system to change the law for many rather than for an individual plaintiff. In essence, citizen suit provisions empower citizens and allow them to play a primary role in the development of environmental jurisprudence.
There are limits to citizen suits. First, citizen suits apply only to government actors and actions, not to private parties or corporations. Citizen suits are also subject to the whims of politics and the current administration’s efforts to deregulate industry and create barriers to citizen suits has led some scholars to question the future of the citizen suit. Finally, litigation is expensive and time-consuming. Nevertheless, the EPA reports 389 active cases, which suggests that citizen suits are a tool that should not be overlooked.
Perhaps a simpler way to create change is to support environmentally friendly propositions and politicians at the ballot box. This means voting in every election, even in non-presidential election years. Recently, propositions have allowed the public to weigh in on a variety of environmental matters. For example, this year in Texas, Proposition 5 concerns a sales tax on sporting goods. A vote for Proposition 5 is a vote in favor of a constitutional amendment to dedicate tax revenue from the sale of sporting goods to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission.
Renewable energy propositions have also appeared on ballots. Arizona’s Proposition 127 would have required electric utilities to source 50% of their electricity from solar and other renewable resources by 2030. Unfortunately, this proposition failed, in part due to the unfavorable wording of the propositions, which framed the use of renewable sourcing in negative terms. Additionally, negative ads—paid for by the oil and gas industry—threatened that consumers would see an increase in their utility bill. The failure of this proposition underscores the importance of educating voters about environmental issues.
Spend (and Save)
Individuals can also vote with their wallets. Market surveys reveal that consumers are increasingly willing to purchase—and often pay more for—goods from companies that align with their values and causes. The conscious consumer’s influence is reflected in the rise of B-corporations or “benefit corporations” such as Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and The Body Shop. Unlike traditional for-profit businesses that operate solely to generate revenue for the benefit of the owner, partners, or shareholders, B-corps operate with two missions: create profit and pursue a social or environmental mission.
Rather than substituting an environmentally harmful product for a less harmful one, consumers can forgo the purchase altogether. Perhaps inspired by Marie Kondo’s popular decluttering strategies and driven by personal debt concerns, the minimalist lifestyle is trending across the United States, especially among Millennials. Whether this continues remains to be seen, but bottom line: less spending means less environmental harm.
In addition to saving, an individual can share data and information as a “citizen scientist.” A more recent phenomenon, citizen science has exploded with the development of the internet. And today, people all over the globe are becoming part of a growing movement comprising citizens who gather, share, and analyze environmental data.
The projects are as diverse as the individuals involved. With apps such as iNaturalist, individuals can upload photographs of plants, animals, and other organisms allowing scientists to track populations and measure biodiversity. Scientists are also using citizen data to study air quality in the Appalachian Mountains, the bleaching of coral reefs in Hawaii, and plastic pollution along beaches in Newfoundland. Technology has made it even easier for citizen scientists to interact with scientists across the globe. As a result, the government no longer has absolute control over environmental data gathering and dissemination, making citizen science one of the most powerful tools for environmental protection in the 21st century.
An added benefit of citizen science is that it is enabling citizens to steer environmental discussions at the local and national level, from boardroom to classroom. For example, in 2010, a 9-year-old boy from Vermont calculated that 500 million plastic straws are discarded per day. A few years later, a Texas A&M student posted a video of a sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nasal cavity. Together, this statistic and video launched the plastic straw ban movement.
Individuals can also steer the investing decisions of large corporations or the operating decisions of universities and institutions. Shareholders are increasingly demanding climate change be factored into business decisions. College-age students have successfully campaigned for universities to retire coal-fired power plants and convert to cleaner energy sources.
Finally, individuals can help steer discussions about the environment by joining community groups or non-profits. Conservation of our land, water, and air through public education is an important mission for these groups. Education is a critical component of citizen engagement, and it can further encourage individuals to sue, strike, support, share, and steer.
Individual action should not replace the regulatory, international, or technological approaches of the past. In fact, in striking, Greta’s message was that adults need to do more and governments need to act faster. Existing environmental laws should be strengthened and enforced, global agreements to combat climate change should be supported, and innovative ideas and new technologies should be pursued. But when traditional approaches stall or are dismantled, remember: individual action equals collective change.
* Professor Sarah J. Morath teaches Lawyering Skills and Strategies at the University of Houston Law Center. Professor Morath earned her JD from the University of Montana School of Law, her Master’s in Environmental Studies from Yale University, and her BA from Vassar College. She writes about environmental, food, and animal law and policy. Her book Our Plastic Problem: Costs and Solutions is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press 2021. The author thanks Professors James Salzman and JB Ruhl for their helpful comments.
 See generally, James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale University Press 2004); Jason Czarnezki, Everyday Environmentalism: Law, Nature, and Individual Behavior (Island Press 2011).
 George Wyeth, LeRoy C. Paddock, Alison Parker, Robert L. Glicksman, Jecoliah & Williams, The Impact of Citizen Environmental Science in the United States, 49 Envtl. L. Rep. News & Analysis 10237 (2019).
 Thanks to Professor JB Ruhl for the sixth S.