I’ve been thinking about this debate over voluntary individual action and its place in the larger fight for sustainability (see here, here, and here). It’s missing something.

A huge gulf has developed in America between public and private life. This has put green activism — all of progressivism, actually — on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, private life has become all but coextensive with consumerism — what we choose to buy. Shifting consumer dollars around isn’t a sufficient solution to any substantial problem. On the other hand, the levers that control the state are out of reach of the average citizen, even in a democracy. Most people are no longer accustomed to being actively involved in self-government.

To tackle environmental problems, we know we need governments to make big changes, but it’s difficult to tell individuals what they should do about that. (Call their representatives? Vote? Then what?) We know individual changes will never add up to the societal shift we need, yet individual changes tend to be the ones that motivate, you know, individuals. We’re reduced to hoping that small, ultimately ineffectual personal changes will open hearts and minds, leading to … something.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Neither position is satisfying. What’s missing is the middle ground, the space that used to mediate between private individuals and states. I’m talking about civil society: church groups, NGOs, professional associations, unions, affinity groups, etc.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It is in civil society that action can be personal but not private. It can leverage large numbers of people but still be individually meaningful.

Civil society has declined in America. Historically it’s two pillars were unions and churches. Unions have been under sustained attack since Reagan, and American churches from evangelical to liberal have turned their focus to individual fulfillment. Americans have been isolated from one another by ubiquitous, overbearing commercial culture, atomized into their individual strip malls, cars, and suburban houses. Where there was once a vibrant and enduring network of voluntary associations, there is now mostly TV.

Psychologically speaking, it is important to offer people ways of engaging and taking action that are tangible. But telling people to buy better lightbulbs, cars, and clothes is a wan response to the magnitude of our peril.

What we need is for people to become active citizens. We need them to return to churches and union halls, but also to create new civil institutions that can leverage collective action into real change. We need to rebuild civil society in America.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Getting involved in civil society is something “you can do.” Hell, I’d put it right there at the top of my “10 things you can do.” It may mean exercising muscles many Americans have allowed to atrophy, but rebuilding civil society will not only move the needle on climate change, it will make our culture more resilient against coming stresses. Time we all rediscovered our neighbors.

Ten things we can do. Got a better ring to it, no?