How to act
“The cause of climate instability is everything: every dimension of our separation from earth, nature, heart, truth, love, community, and compassion.”
Charles Eisenstein in Climate: A New Story
Responding to my recent article about the ecological crisis, my friend Kai asked:
How would you respond to the criticism that this perspective is overly focused on the personal or local outcome?
As you know very well, the fight for climate action is also a fight for social justice more broadly, and especially for those that are already feeling the grim effects of climate change.
This is a topic that Kai also wrote about back in March.
I think what’s often behind this sort of question is the desire to know: how can I have the biggest impact? And behind that: how can I feel OK about my participation in a system which I know is destroying the Earth? Surely by doing the thing that will have the biggest impact? Even if it doesn’t work, at least I can say I tried!
Our culture is obsessed with quantitative reasoning. For any given problem, the default response is to figure out what to measure, find the most impactful change according to that measure, and then try to implement that change as widely as possible. This is a reductionist frame which overlooks the relationships between things and the non-linearity with which change can happen. (Look at COVID-19 – how many futurists were confidently predicting this a year ago?)
In Kai’s article, he points to research showing that over 70% of emissions to date came from just 100 oil, gas and mining companies. If only we could somehow force those companies to change tack, we’d be well on our way to solving the problem.
The thing is, those companies aren’t digging the stuff up and then just putting a match to it. They’re selling it to other companies and individuals who want the energy. The behaviour of those fossil fuel companies is deeply entwined with how our economy works, how we live our lives, and how we collectively value (or don’t value) the world around us. It’s a complex system – a change to one part does not produce a predictable outcome in another.
I used to believe that I could force change. In a world of globalisation and Elon Musks and career ladders we’re told that we can be somebody, we can leave a legacy, we can have an impact. I can’t quite pinpoint where in history this story first arose, but it seems to be another facet of the neoliberal individualist story which denies the connections between us all. It’s driven by the ego, who so easily forgets that in the not too distant future our atoms will be rearranged once more.
Asking whether I should change myself or change the system still centres the individual making that decision. Perhaps by building strong communities a different kind of force could emerge.
In truth, I am not trying to act in a certain way, nor to tell you how to act. Action got us into this mess. When I deeply reflect on what an ecological society would look like, it is completely unrecognisable from where I’m standing. I do not know how to get there. (I do trust that it will emerge, but I suspect I won’t be around to see that time.)
What I have done is reached a place of acceptance about that storm brewing on the horizon. I still wish to live my life in a way that feels true to my values. Sometimes that may look like changing my electricity provider or divesting my pension or getting on a bike. But I do those things because they feel like the best way to express the world I want to live in, rather than because I think it will stop the storm from coming, or because I feel guilty about being the person I am, in the time that I’m in.
I don’t believe there’s one single area we can all focus on that will achieve the change that is needed. Everything needs to change. So do what you’re drawn to do rather than the thing you’ve calculated will have the biggest impact according to some measure of the situation which undoubtedly overlooks countless things we cannot understand.
For a much deeper exploration of these themes, I highly recommend reading Charles Eisenstein’s book, Climate: A New Story.
I agree with this post in general but I have a couple of issues with it.
Re. the fossil fuel companies, yes of course the demand comes from lower down the supply chain. But that doesn’t mean that with the right international political will you couldn’t directly regulate the specific multinational corporations to stop them drilling the stuff out of the ground, at the same time as investing in green infrastructure (e.g. electric vehicle networks) to ensure that demand for energy (albeit necessarily much lower) could be met from non-fossil sources.
In that sense it’s actually quite convenient that the extraction is so economically centralised. The book Kyoto2 by Oliver Tickell (though depressingly old now given the lack of action since it was written) does a good job of explaining how this kind of regulation could work.
On the overall point though, I do agree that lots of climate campaigning is overly simplistic when it comes to simply blaming big companies rather than calling for them to be regulated effectively in a wider framework of decarbonisation that acknowledges how energy-hungry our current lifestyles are. That doesn’t mean that we just give up trying to regulate them, just that we need to be more nuanced in how we approach the activism, and move beyond nebulous campaigning towards building explicit political platforms for future-proofed international economic policy.
The paragraph I have a bigger problem with is this:
“I can’t quite pinpoint where in history this story first arose, but it seems to be another facet of the neoliberal individualist story which denies the connections between us all. It’s driven by the ego, who so easily forgets that in the not too distant future our atoms will be rearranged once more.”
The notion that “individuals can change stuff” is a neoliberal construct is absurd. A cursory look at how change has happened throughout history makes it clear that many individuals have changed many things (Hitler is probably the most obvious example, Gandhi the less horrific one).
I understand that for the benefit of one’s mental health it is useful to compartmentalise choices into those that are within a clear and obvious sphere of influence, and those that are much more ambitious and less likely to succeed. But to discount taking action entirely because our current idolised change agents are neoliberal entrepreneurs feels like overkill. I may be a hopeless romantic but I still prefer to live life in this way (with a hefty does of meditation and acceptance!).
Hi Jamie, thanks for your thoughts 🙂
I more or less agree with you here, this sort of thing could be possible. Whether it would be sufficient I am more sceptical about, but that doesn’t negate your point. (And it would surely be better than the status quo!)
But the main thing I was trying to say is that I don’t agree with the idea that there’s one true way to be responding to this issue which makes all the other ways of responding counterproductive.
Of course, Hitler and Gandhi are both examples (among many) of individuals who have “changed stuff”.
The bit I think is a neoliberal construct is that we all have to go out into the world trying to leave as big a mark as possible. And that this should be the default way that we decide what to do with our limited time and energy.
I think this mindset of forcing change upon the world has much in common with the mindset of domination and control that has lead to the present predicament. I think it discounts the surprising ways that change can happen through us, without being specifically designed by us.
I think there are plenty of examples of historical figures who were in ‘the right place at the right time’ and did something significant because they realised that they were being called to do it, rather than because they had orchestrated the situation. (Rosa Parks?)
I’m definitely not discounting taking action. I’m discounting taking action for the wrong reasons. If doing something in particular is what you feel called to do, then by all means go and do it. I support you to do that. But I don’t think that at this stage anybody has a monopoly on what the “most effective” thing to do is. We’ve had years and years of pushing for change, and none of it has really made a whole lot of difference to the fundamental structures which are driving ecological breakdown.
Again, everything needs to change. So I support people doing the thing that they feel drawn to do, within the context of everything needing to change!
Hi again Jon! Only just saw your very thoughtful follow-up because I was reminded of your post again because I just read this article which reminded me of it: