This is post 4 of a 5 part series. Previously:
If you've been reading these posts in order, you may feel that the previous one about the paramount importance of better policy undermines the message from the day before about individual choices we can make to use less oil. There are several reasons why even though it can't be enough alone, individual action is still crucially important.
The first is simply that the status quo is so bad that we must do everything productive, and not allow the pursuit of one avenue to prevent others from being explored. I started this series writing about the direct consequences of oil extraction, but I have barely mentioned the larger problem: global climate change. Unfortunately, the world is almost certainly committed to some warming even if we somehow stop emitting greenhouse gases overnight. This means we have already passed the point where the real question is about whether we suffer serious, painful consequences; it's already a question of how bad it will be. This means that anything which reduces emissions now will have some benefit, and most of the individual actions can be done much quicker than the necessary policy changes.
A deeper reason is that the domains of individual action and policy are not entirely separate. When you choose to bike somewhere instead of driving, you are not only avoiding those miles of driving, but also shifting demand from car to bike infrastructure. This information is tracked and used to plan future investments, so each time you make a choice of how to get around (or where to buy things from, what food to eat, and so on), you are voting with your feet. And if you want to persuade your elected representative to do something, it's much easier if you can say "this will help me, because I'm already practicing what I preach", not to mention simply being more honest.
Finally, individual choices matter as much as anything else because they shift the Overton Window; they change what is considered politically possible. Each person who makes the kind of behavioural choices that contribute to weaning us off oil, makes it easier for the next to follow, and easier for politicians to pass the kind of laws that support them doing so. Changing social trends change what politicians feel they can or should do, and a changing social trend is nothing more than the aggregation of enough individuals changing their own behaviour. A movement is powerful because it leads to political change, but it starts with individuals opting to do the right thing.
So, individual action alone won't save us, but the system-wide changes we need won't happen without the support of many individuals' actions.
This is post 4 of a 5 part series. Coming up: