Your dad protested this birthday party. As a longtime environmental activist, he hated to be “wasteful.”
When he was young, people thought a lot about personal footprints. Also, waste was, like, a thing. He still has trouble believing that travel, circularity, and municipal repurposing have gotten as efficient as you constantly remind him they have.
But now that everyone’s here, you see the joy in his crinkly, 95-year-old smile. The whole family’s together, laughing, toasting him with homemade beer, and enjoying his favorite vegan dishes. It’s the party he deserves — and the one you knew a part of him wanted.
— a drabble by Claire Elise Thompson
One of the most frequent things we hear from our readers is that you want to learn more about what you can do about climate change. You, like a majority of people in this country, feel the weight and the urgency of the climate crisis, and want to make a difference. But we also hear a lot of questions and frustrations about how much of an impact individual actions, like green lifestyle choices, can actually have.
The idea of personal responsibility is fraught within the climate movement. The phrase “carbon footprint” actually originated as part of an ad campaign by BP, which strategically placed the onus for climate-friendly behavior onto individuals. And it worked astonishingly well. But over the past several years, advocates have challenged that framework in an attempt to shift the conversation to systemic change.
“I don’t want us to blame climate change on everyday people anymore, because it’s the fault of a system that’s been created that they’re forced to live in,” says Molly Kawahata, a former climate advisor to the Obama White House who now runs a communications consultancy focused on redirecting the climate movement away from shame and toward collective power.
But Kawahata and others also stress that focusing on the need for systemic change doesn’t render individuals powerless, or mark the end of personal action. In fact, it’s the opposite. Rejecting a narrative of guilt and shame can actually free up people’s capacity to take more impactful actions. Kawahata, for example, emphasizes voter registration and mobilization as the best way for someone to contribute to generating collective power.
“I think without individual action, you can’t have effective collective action,” says Nivi Achanta, the founder and CEO of Soapbox Project, a digital community focused on joyful and “bite-sized” climate actions. In her mind, it’s fruitless to go back and forth questioning whether an individual choice “matters.” If it’s something you believe in and feel good about doing, whether it’s shopping secondhand, eating less meat, or volunteering your time, then it matters to you. It forms a part of your identity — and it may well impact the people around you.
“I don’t think any individual action is truly just about the individual unless you’re living off-grid somewhere, not talking to anyone,” Achanta says.
This is the basis of a five-part series we’ll be running over the coming weeks, focused on reframing our ideas about personal action. We’ll be looking at some unique perspectives on what it means to take individual action against the backdrop of systemic problems, and exploring how different people are living out their values, magnifying their reach, and joining together with others to make change.
We’re starting the series with an area of action that’s about as personal as you can get, and one that’s been on my mind recently. I’m about to get married (in 10 mere days, in fact!) on my partner’s family farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
As a climate journalist, I thought a lot about how I wanted this wedding to reflect my personal values. We’re going plastic-free; my future mother-in-law procured all of our mismatched plates, silverware, and glasses from thrift shops and yard sales; and we’re planning to decorate with bundles of invasive grasses that we’ll pick the day before. We’re keeping things casual, in part because this wedding is coming on the heels of a cross-country move and my partner’s graduation from med school (it’s a big time for us, fam!).
Planning for my own nuptials got me thinking about how big life events — whether a wedding, birthday party, or another milestone — are moments in which we make a lot of personal choices. But our choices have a magnified impact, both because we are making them for everyone on the guest list, and because these momentous gatherings often bring some of the largest purchasing decisions we’ll ever have the opportunity to make. Big events can also be a way of sharing your values with your loved ones, of creating new traditions to pass on to future generations, or of reviving and honoring old ones.
From birth to death, here are stories of how individuals have used their life’s milestones to create an outsized impact from their personal choices.
At a birthday party
Birthdays are meaningful in almost every culture. But in Hawaii, a baby’s first birthday, or ahaʻaina piha makahiki, is a particularly big deal. The tradition harks back to times when infant mortality rates were high on the islands, and so surviving for a full year was an accomplishment worth celebrating — the first major milestone in a young child’s life. Nowadays, the festivities can be as big as weddings.
“When my first child turned 1, I went ham on figuring out how to locally source all of his food for his first luau,” says Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi, an urban farmer based in Troy, New York, with Native Hawaiian ancestry. They traveled home to celebrate the first luau with their family in Hawaii, and as someone deeply invested in local food systems, Iversen-Keahi wanted the feast to support Hawaiian farmers. They were also painfully aware that, despite a rich agricultural history, the archipelago currently imports over 80 percent of its food.
Iversen-Keahi enlisted the help of local farmer and food systems advocate Daniel Anthony to source ingredients like pork, taro, and fish. Anthony also guided the family through pounding their own poi, a sweet, starchy food made from taro root.
“I still remember my grandma laughing at me when I requested the family join me to partake in this process,” Iversen-Keahi says. The idea of making the poi themselves, when they were already paying for it, didn’t immediately intrigue all of their family members — but they came around to the DIY process, and it became an opportunity to reconnect not only with local food sources but also traditional practices. “When my [93-year-old] great-grandmother tasted it, she said she hadn’t tasted poi like that since she was a child,” Iversen-Keahi says. Her great-grandmother’s grandfather had been a taro farmer, and she used to help him on the farm every summer. “This was the last luau she attended before she passed away.”
Iversen-Keahi also made their own piñata and other decorations for the party. Their grandmother sang. “I put my all into it, and it felt sacred to include multiple generations in the process of feeding each other,” they say. “It wasn’t a simple trip to Costco — as my family usually prefers it.”
At a wedding
Soapbox Project’s Nivi Achanta was featured in the Washington Post Climate Coach newsletter for her and her partner’s decision to mark their engagement with the purchase of a new bike in lieu of a diamond ring. Challenging traditions that didn’t feel meaningful and choosing sustainable alternatives was important to her, but not necessarily because of the quantifiable impact.
“I’ve spent the past three months looking for secondhand wedding outfits,” Achanta shared with me earlier this year. “Do I think it’s the best use of my time? No, not necessarily. In those three months you could argue that I could have gone to more city hall meetings and organized people and done high-leverage actions.” But, she says, making that extra effort for a particularly important — and visible — moment in her life felt as though she was standing for something. And she made sure to share what she was doing with others.
In January, Achanta posted a Twitter thread about the challenge of finding secondhand garments for South Asian weddings, which typically feature multiple outfits often made-to-measure. The thread has racked up over half a million views. “I think that’s where individual action is powerful,” Achanta says — when it sparks conversations.
When my big brother got married in 2021, he and his wife chose a meat-free menu. My brother has been a vegetarian since high school. His reasoning, originally, was to see if he could stick with it longer than me (I had a few false starts, OK) — but over more than a decade, it’s evolved to reflect a combination of his environmental views and his love for animals.
Although it was no secret that the wedding was vegetarian, he and his wife weren’t aiming to start a conversation. Instead, their goal was to spend their money in a way that supported their values, with one of the largest food purchases they’re likely to make in their life.
“If the reason for your vegetarianism is primarily driven by, like, casting your dollar vote for a more environmentally friendly diet, then that’s a huge dollar vote,” my brother told me. The catering for their wedding was the largest part of their budget — and they wanted to spend that cash supporting a company that was as excited as they were about crafting a delicious plant-based menu (including a butternut squash lasagna that I still dream about).
At a funeral
The final ritual of life is one that the guest of honor doesn’t directly participate in. But funerals, like weddings and birthday parties, are generally about gathering together to honor a loved one. And that can include honoring values around climate and sustainability.
Rabbi Seth Goldstein recently officiated at his first funeral where the deceased had chosen to be composted. “It was a very powerful experience,” Goldstein told me. He’d been curious about the practice since it was legalized in 2019 in Washington state, where he lives and works. And he felt an obligation, and an opportunity, to make meaning out of the choice in the context of Jewish teachings.
“I really valued that choice, even though it wasn’t traditional within Jewish practice, because I knew that it was fitting in with these deeply held values of sustainability and environmental justice that I feel are deeply inherent within Judaism,” he says. In some ways, Goldstein says, the ethos of the practice felt very similar to a traditional Jewish burial, which generally emphasizes simplicity and returning to the earth — similar to the modern-day green burial movement.
For Goldstein, this funeral was the first opportunity he and many of his community members had to engage with human composting, and calling attention to his congregant’s choice created an opportunity for all of them to reimagine hallowed rituals in the context of new technology.
“I really felt that it was a gift given to me by this beloved congregant,” Goldstein says. “To be able to deeply engage with it as a rabbi, as someone who’s serving my community, honoring individuals and their choices while honoring Jewish tradition at the same time — it was a beautiful gift.”
— Claire Elise Thompson
- Read: more about the Hawaiian tradition of the first luau (Fodor’s Travel)
- Read: about the push to revitalize — and decolonize — Hawaii’s food systems (Honolulu Civil Beat)
- Read: more on sustainable weddings: tips on how to have one (New York Times), stories from two recently wed couples in India (World Is One News), and an opinion piece on why the wedding-industrial complex should be listening (Grist)
- Read: about the quickly growing practice of human composting (Atmos)
- Read: about an imagined future where green burial and forest cemeteries become the norm (from Grist’s Imagine 2200 collection)
See for yourself
Have you chosen green alternatives for a meaningful moment in your life? Have you created your own rituals, reimagined traditions, or otherwise found ways of sustainably celebrating and honoring life’s milestones? Reply to this email to tell us about it!
A parting shot
The world’s first human-composting facility opened in Seattle in December of 2020, operated by a company called Recompose. (This photo shows a mannequin covered by a shroud and a bundle of flowers, offering a view inside the company’s green funeral home.) The process takes about a month, and produces roughly one cubic yard of soil. Loved ones can either donate the compost for use in forest conservation projects, or keep some or all of it.