While reading through the archives over at Treehugger, I came across this bit of wisdom that I think has broader applications than just environmentalism and global climate change:
Inevitably, if we look solely at 'impacts' and 'footprints'—be they personal, or collective—we end up focusing on incremental change as we lessen our footprint one person at a time, or one community at a time. Yet the urgency of climate change and peak oil are such that incrementalism is unlikely to get us where we want to go. Instead we'd be far better off working to find those points—be they cultural, technological or political—where we can have the most effect, and then apply as much pressure as possible to bring about the change we need.
Our culture and capitalism as a system encourage us to think in very individual ways. When we think of problems — even ones caused by generations of humans all across the world — we tend to first see actions we can take as an individual that might affect the problem in even an infinitesimal way. Faced with the realities of global climate change, we may recycle or compost more. Faced with the horrors of the meat industry, we may choose to eat vegetarian. In the face of unfair working conditions, we may find another place to work or avoid shopping at certain stores.
And make no mistake: these are all great steps to take as compared with the status quo. The larger issue is that these individual actions with very limited impact make us feel like we are working to solve large scale problems in meaningful ways while larger collective bodies are and always will be undermining our small efforts at a rate that far outstrips anything we can do as individuals. The amount of waste generated by households pales in comparison to the waste generated by commercial and industrial sectors. The food service industry will keep right on buying meat farmed in ways that most people would feel uncomfortable with, and they'll drive up demand with advertising budgets that far outstrip the amount that vegan and animal rights organizations have to counter their message. Corporations will continue to have the ear of elected representatives and will skew policy in favor of owners and management over individual workers.
In order to effect truly meaningful change in any sphere, we have to organize. One environmentalist, one vegetarian, or one worker has a voice that is easily ignored or shouted down. Large groups of people working together comprise an implicit threat and provide motivation to actually change the status quo.
We also need to be careful that we're not using collective action to implement solutions that belie individual thinking. We need to work together to think of ways to change entire systems. We can apply pressure to our legislators to change laws (and actually enforce them equitably). We can make even multinational corporations change procedures to reduce the harm they are doing to our fellow humans and to the planet as a whole. For that matter, we can organize new structures that challenge the existing structures by working more effectively and more democratically.
If we are to survive, we must breed a new culture, and — with all due respect to the goals and methodologies I envisioned when I was younger — it won't happen just by sitting alone, writing about what needs to change, and making virtuous changes in my own life. At any level, things only change when we take action. For large-scale problems, that necessarily implies solving our problems collectively.