Alex Steffen on individual action in context
The perennial debate over the value of voluntary individual action — recently revived by Tidwell’s piece and the sociologists’ response — reminded me that some of the best, or least my favorite, writing on the subject comes from Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen.
And here’s the essential break between lite green and bright green thinking: the reality is that the changes we must make are systemic changes. They involve large-scale transformations in the ways we plan our cities, manufacture goods, grow food, transport ourselves, and generate energy. They involve new international regulatory regimes, corporate strategies, industrial standards, tax systems and trading markets. If we want to change the world, we need to forge ourselves into the kinds of citizens who can effectively demand such things.
Dire practicality demands that we reject the privatization of responsibility. None of us can make this great transformation happen alone, and it removes pressure from our leaders to take needed steps when some suggest that the changes that need to be made in the world start with our personal choices. They don’t.
Can strategic consumption be one of the tactics we use? Of course. But the power most of us can actually exert at the cash register is extremely limited. Far, far more important are our public lives: our roles as citizens, as change agents within our businesses, as advocates in our communities, as investors and philanthropists, as opinion leaders in general (and if you’re reading this site now, you are, however uncomfortable it may be, an opinion leader). [my emphasis]
And this, from yesterday:
Why do good people keep advocating lifestyle change? Well, the hope is that small steps will lead to a big change of heart: that a tipping point will occur when the crucial can falls into the critical recycling bin, and people all around the world will awaken to the sustainability imperative, and then that, in some vague-but-direly-hoped-for way, this awakening will change everything and all will be well (and everyone gets a pony!). I think of this theory as betting the farm on the arrival of a Mythological Universal Conversion Event.
Here’s the biggest problem with this theory of social change: we’ve been at it for decades, it hasn’t worked and it probably never will. Things are demonstrably worse than they were when we began advocating recycling and such, and they’re getting much worse far faster than any lifestyle choices can make them better. In the absence of an unlikely change in the nature of humanity, buying bamboo shirts or sustainable furniture is like spitting at a forest fire.
We don’t need more people living marginally greener lifestyles. We need thousands of people, millions of people, swarming out of their lifestyles and leading worldchanging lives: practicing strategic consumption, sure, but also inventing new answers, changing their companies (or quitting their jobs and starting better companies), running for office, writing books and shooting films, teaching, protesting, investing in change, mobilizing their communities, redesigning their cities, getting up off the couch and going to the meeting, and in every other way making it happen. It is time to live as though the day has come, because it has: tomorrow is too late. One planet, three decades.
Put another way: Don’t just be the change, mass-produce it. We need, through brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory and universal characteristic of our society, not an ethical choice. We need to remake the systems in which live. We need to redesign civilization.
And in case you didn’t follow the link, go on back and read Alex’s "Winning the Great Wager," one of my favorite pieces of green writing from the last few years.