Numerous times on this blog, I’ve argued that while individual behavior is not irrelevant, it certainly shouldn’t be the focus of environmental advocacy. Individuals are highly constrained in their choices; substantial environmental improvement will only happen with structural changes in our laws, regulations, and business practices.

Brad Plumer makes a similar point today, drawing from Heather Rogers’ Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage:

… the entire anti-litter movement was initiated by a consortium of industry groups who wanted to divert the nation’s attention away from even more radical legislation to control the amount of waste these companies were putting out. It’s a good story worth retelling.

In essence, Keep America Beautiful managed to shift the entire debate about America’s garbage problem. No longer was the focus on regulating production — for instance, requiring can and bottle makers to use refillable containers, which are vastly less profitable. Instead, the "litterbug" became the real villain, and KAB supported fines and jail time for people who carelessly tossed out their trash, despite the fact that, clearly, "littering" is a relatively tiny part of the garbage problem in this country (not to mention the resource damage and pollution that comes with manufacturing ever more junk in the first place). Environmental groups that worked with KAB early on didn’t realize what was happening until years later.

And KAB’s campaign worked — by the late 1950s, anti-litter ordinances were being passed in statehouses across the country, while not a single restriction on packaging could be found anywhere. Even today, thanks to heavy lobbying by the packaging industry, only twelve states have deposit laws, despite the fact that the laws demonstrably save energy and reduce consumption by promoting reuse and recycling.

This is a familiar story. Personal-behavior campaigns have a certain traction for environmental organizations — they speak to people where they live, they’re catchy, they bring in donations. And they play on progressive guilt over living in an affluent society.

They also have a certain traction for industry, allowing them to look like responsible citizens while distracting attention from regulations that might actually constrain them.

But they do not address the real, systemic environmental problems. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s no substitute for political engagement.

(via too-rare Gristmill contributor John McGrath)