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Individual Action vs. Collective Action and the Importance of the Swiss Cheese Model

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot – including how to think about the path forward on climate action.


As the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, we’ve all learned about a number of ways to fight the spread of the virus. From social distancing and hand-washing to mask-wearing and eventually vaccinations, experts have recommended all sorts of actions we can take to keep ourselves and our communities safe.

But these recommendations have often come with a warning: No one action alone can stop the spread. Instead, these steps work best when we do them all in conjunction with each other.

This is known as the “Swiss cheese model,” and the idea is pretty simple.

Imagine a few slices of Swiss cheese stacked on top of each other. Each slice has some holes in it, but those holes rarely line up with each other. So when piled together, the slices of cheese form a block that can’t be passed through.

In other words, while no single tactic will stop the spread of the virus, each mitigating action we take adds a layer of protection for us all. When we add enough layers, we’ll be able to solve the crisis.

And this same philosophy holds true for the climate crisis.

In climate circles, we often hear debates about individual climate action versus the need for ambitious collective action. Proponents of individual action sometimes point out that steps like zero-waste lifestyles and reduced carbon footprints are attainable examples of direct action we can all take immediately to combat the climate crisis. Supporters of collective action, on the other hand, emphasize that the scale of the crisis demands using the power of large coalitions to achieve society-wide change.

With the backdrop of a worsening climate crisis and an accelerating need for urgent action, it can be tempting to pit these two concepts against each other. But if we look to the Swiss cheese model, we’ll see a different perspective.

Individual climate action is a crucial component of solving the climate crisis – and so is collective action. Neither tactic alone will deliver us the sustainable future we deserve, but when viewed as overlapping methods that each have different holes, we can chart a path toward sustainability.

Eliminating plastics from your daily life? That’s a layer that will help at the individual level. A climate-smart energy grid to accelerate the transition to clean energy? That’s a big layer of collective action. Choosing public transit or electric vehicles? Another important individual layer. Ambitious legislation to limit emissions by switching to renewable energy sources? A crucial collective layer.

There’s no magic bullet for solving the climate crisis – and as others have pointed out, there’s no vaccine either. But there are solutions at our disposal. The debate over individual versus collective action is a sure sign that these solutions are numerous and varied, and it proves that we’re ready to act. We shouldn’t view these as competing ideas, but as complementary layers of action we can take together.

Because the climate crisis is too big and too urgent to be solved by any one tactic, but it can – and will – be solved. And the lessons we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic can help us get there.