Everyone who lives in our modern society takes advantage of a lot of services, of schools, healthcare, entertainment, home maintenance, and more. And it isn’t easy to think about the services we use in terms of “personal” impacts. These are businesses and institutions that serve hundreds, thousands, even millions of people each, and most of the users and customers have very little say over the ways these organizations function. But services are only there because people value them and use them. Just by living in a town or city, you are assuming ‘your’ share of these things. In terms of carbon emissions (which are a good proxy for total impacts), the largest of these is the healthcare industry, followed by education, entertainment and recreation, communications (including things like phone, internet and cable television), with many other smaller contributors (source here).

But what if you never go out, or don’t use these spaces and these services? If it was paid for by the government, that came from your tax dollars. If it was hospital spending, then it is paid for out of your healthcare premiums. It would be difficult to sort out exact shares for the environmental impacts of all of these services to any given individual, but this isn’t really necessary. Our societies have decided to do these things whether through profit motive or public policy, and they are a part of our shared social fabric.

What you can do

So as mentioned above, a given person or household doesn’t usually have that much control over the environmental impacts of services, certainly nothing like the way that we can decide about whether to buy a certain car or not. So instead, we recommend that the first thing that should be done is to cultivate awareness and understanding. Think about all of resources that are being put into providing us with these services. When you go into a sports arena or send your kids off to school, take a few moments to consider all of the things that go into providing sports fields or an education. Each of these places that we go and services that we use are a little bit yours, not just of the company shareholders or superintendent of schools.

Once you have become more aware of the services that you use in your life, you can take some small actions by being judicious about which services and service providers you use, giving your dollars and time to those that you deem worthy. This could be those that do the most for your quality of life or those that seem to be run better or more efficiently. One can also choose not to ‘consume’ as much services. Certainly use them as much as you need, but it is also possible to overdo it, which would be unnecessarily wasteful.

One problem with this individual action is that it wouldn’t make clear to organizations why you aren’t continuing to utilize their services. Another is that a single person changing their behavior may not have an impact on these institutions. We also need to demand that all of these organizations do better. Now we don’t mean that you should give your plumber a hard time for driving a gas guzzling truck, but instead to simply do what you can to be part of the solution instead of only a part of the problem. The biggest thing that you can do is to get involved with like minded people to take collective action to try to improve the practices of organizations of all types. Advocacy groups may be working to change regulations on certain types of businesses, pushing for more efficient buildings, vehicles, or business practices, and some even work directly with industry to improve the sustainability of their businesses (such as the Rocky Mountain Institute). Changing the way that society provides services to citizens so that these are sustainable is something that can only be done if we work together; here, the individual choices that we make won’t be enough.