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Don't Just Be the Change, Mass-Produce It
Alex Steffen, 12 Sep 07
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"If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?” asked an email I got recently.

I know the standard answer: Be the change.

This motto -- shorthand for Gandhi's instruction that "We must be the change we wish to see in the world" -- has become ubiquitous. And while a sensible person will appreciate the essential wisdom behind Gandhi's words, in the context of sustainability, this shorthand has become associated as well with another idea: that the being the change is a lifestyle choice.

In this context, Be the change in fact usually means Buy the change. It means living a standard consumerist lifestyle, but varying the products one consumes to include "green" clothes, cars and furniture... or at best going without a few things you didn't need anyways.

Here we crash headlong into one of the most painful, difficult and confusing realities of life today: varying our lifestyles will not create the kind of change the world needs to see. Ensnared in huge systems whose major by-product is destruction, it is nearly impossible -- if we're looking at the problem with clear eyes -- to truly be the change.

It is essentially impossible for an average person with an average income to live an average North American lifestyle sustainably. It is only somewhat less difficult for an average European. Personal sustainability certainly can't be achieved simply by shopping at a different set of stores.

But that's not the half of it. The very idea that changing our own lives into models of sustainability will transform the world is wrongheaded -- in part because it is almost impossible to do without great wealth or great sacrifice, in part because even when we do it, it encourages us to believe that problems which demand systemic solutions can be fixed by personal virtue.

At its worst, making saving the world a personal responsibility drives green posturing that's both meaningless and annoying. But even at it's best -- even when we focus on taking the personal actions that are both actually within our power and at least somewhat effective -- it is woefully insufficient. As Bill Rees (the inventor of the ecological footprint measurement) says, "We're all on the same ship and what we do in our individual cabins is of almost no consequence in terms of the direction the ship is going."

The privatization of responsibility for the crises we face is entirely understandable. Making planet-saving a consumer choice helps sell products. Making it a lifestyle choice mutes political pressure for change. Making it an individual responsibility helps deflect attention away from the massive impact, ethical bankruptcy and extreme profitability of the unsustainable production, transportation, energy, food and construction systems upon which we depend and over which we currently have essentially no direct control.

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.

Regular people get this. Edward Abbey wrote that "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." And almost every day we ask those around us engage in the ruination of their souls. We tell them the truth -- that an ecological collapse is on its way, and that avoiding it demands widespread transformation -- and then we suggest that they take some small steps whose meaninglessness in the face of massive crisis is self-evident. We ask them to care about everything, and do almost nothing.

We ought instead to ask from them, and demand from ourselves, action commensurate to the crisis, which is to say heroic action. The world has never more needed a generation of heroes, and, in the absence of a better generation, we'd better step up and fight like hell for the future we want.

I am not really in the business of giving individuals advice. But it does seem to me that there is one step which applies to everyone: Dream big. Dream about living your one-planet life in a bright green city on a sustainable and thriving planet, and dream about it in the near term.

In dreams begin responsibility, as the man said. I think that vision places on us a burden, that to be able to see the gap between the world as it is and the world as it must become is to be tasked with trying to imagine ways of bridging that gap. But in dreams also begin transformation: having imagined a better future, we gain the ability to work towards designing, building and spreading it.

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.

Anything less is failure.

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Comments

Ever been to a concert which is so rivetting that there is, at first, no applause after the last chord dies away? I think this post is like that.

Well put Alex.

I don't have time to say much more now (shouldn't really say this much). But isn't that part of the problem? everyone's too busy being busy to attend to longer term problems and 'get out there'?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 12 Sep 07

Nice work Alex.

I know that I sometimes get caught up in the details and loose the vision. Why did I start my business in the first place? Where do I see my city in 10 years?

Our every action must come from the vision of transformational change.


Posted by: Jeffrey on 12 Sep 07

Very motivating piece! Lets make the change! Everything counts, even that small piece of trash on the side of the road. People will begin to notice that less IS more. Our happines does not come from making more money to pay for more/bigger objects. Our lives are really about creating a harmonious life full of peace and joy. It may sound quintessential, but its true, and as my mother says: the truth always hurts.


Posted by: Jessica Turrin on 12 Sep 07

I salute you for writing this because I can understand deeply the place it comes from. This is a clarion call to arms that rings with the forcefulness of a concussion grenade. Unfortunately, it falls like an unwatched tree in the muted ether forest of the internet; a place where ideas go to die. Lifestyle change CAN help manifest social change, but only on the massive level that you describe at the end of this piece. The tragedy is; those who can help make this change, help restructure this civilization will never read your post (or mine). They’re too busy shoveling shit or mopping floors or doing whatever necessary function of society it is that I apparently don’t, to be able to read and comprehend this mantra on the need for a complete societal restructuring. To evolve the Gandhi quote, we might say: “BUILD the change you wish to see in the world” ~ With this certain caveat: Sometimes you have to do a lil’ demolition before you can build a damn thing.


Posted by: Jonathan Robert on 12 Sep 07

I salute you for writing this because I can understand deeply the place it comes from. This is a clarion call to arms that rings with the forcefulness of a concussion grenade. Unfortunately, it falls like an unwatched tree in the muted ether forest of the internet; a place where ideas go to die. Lifestyle change CAN help manifest social change, but only on the massive level that you describe at the end of this piece. The tragedy is; those who can help make this change, help restructure this civilization will never read your post (or mine). They’re too busy shoveling shit or mopping floors or doing whatever necessary function of society it is that I apparently don’t, to be able to read and comprehend this mantra on the need for a complete societal restructuring. To evolve the Gandhi quote, we might say: “BUILD the change you wish to see in the world” ~ With this certain caveat: Sometimes you have to do a lil’ demolition before you can build a damn thing.


Posted by: Jonathan Robert on 12 Sep 07

I salute you for writing this because I can understand deeply the place it comes from. This is a clarion call to arms that rings with the forcefulness of a concussion grenade. Unfortunately, it falls like an unwatched tree in the muted ether forest of the internet; a place where ideas go to die. Lifestyle change CAN help manifest social change, but only on the massive level that you describe at the end of this piece. The tragedy is; those who can help make this change, help restructure this civilization will never read your post (or mine). They’re too busy shoveling shit or mopping floors or doing whatever necessary function of society it is that I apparently don’t, to be able to read and comprehend this mantra on the need for a complete societal restructuring. To evolve the Gandhi quote, we might say: “BUILD the change you wish to see in the world” ~ With this certain caveat: Sometimes you have to do a lil’ demolition before you can build a damn thing.


Posted by: Jonathan Robert on 12 Sep 07

Revolutions are rarely bloodless (in the quite literal sense); you and I would have it so. We all discuss ways of positive change; we begin a thousand incremental movements toward a sustainable place for all living things. But as Jonathan mentions above, there are billions of people who are not necessarily thinking about this right now. They are not taking those steps. Our revolution may be velvet; though we must consider all the clouded rhetoric that surround these issues, at least we have the power to discern and determine our futures through "lifestyle choices." We have in our hands a spectrum of paths that point to any number of futures. But, I fear, there are so many in the world who face a starker and much bloodier tomorrow.

If we are to have any future, the revolution (and I'm using that term without a solid definition here) will come. But, nothing dealing with ideas at such a large scale comes overnight; nothing comes to all of us at once. We've begin in the Global North, we take thousand incremental steps (though more slowly that some of us would like to see); we are hopeful these will negate the damages done. We are hopeful that it's not too late to heal. But, while we change, we ride on a cache of social order and wealth. Most of the South has no such buffer; the revolution will hit them hard and suddenly (we can already see this happening in places with scarce water resources and where food supply is endangered by global warming; the knock-on social effects are apparent).

I say all the above to consider this: You and I know that radical change is needed; we have good hopes of determining what this is and living it out. Though I'm not completely living it now, I hope to do so in the incoming years so that all is well and I am not detrimental to society or the planet. All of "us" commit to this; we manage to become a positive encouragement in our society and change it for the better. Millions of "us" change; however, there are still billions of people on the planet who were not part of this initial revolution. There are still billions operating under "the old systems." How do we bring the revolution to them?

Alex, you are right, we have the responsibility to dream a new future for the world; it's not enough to sit tidy at home. I do not think it grandiose to say that we must now think ideas that are better than what humanity has ever thought. All action springs from ideas, we must have the best ideas and inspire people with them.

What ideal world do we advocate? I think we do not yet have anything that would unify humanity to change in the radical way needed. We don't have, for lack of a better metaphor, a scripture for the future of the world. (Or, perhaps, we haven't properly interpreted the text written in nature all around us.) I can make the changes needed to save my world; that decision is relatively painless (though it require a complete restructuring of all my thought and action). The difficult part of a revolution is not changing me; the difficulty is generating and disseminating the ideas that change others. How do we shape the ideas of all the people in the world in the short time we have to do so? How do we make the green revolution velvet for us all?


Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 13 Sep 07

Well, thanks for that piece of writing. I'm French (and that's not neutral regarding the following) working on sustainable development for some 10 years now.A very personal view is exposed here after and I neither ask you to share it nor to be convinced.
My point of view differs quite a lot with Alex's. I think that precisely, what he wants us to do (save the world and be heroes) is a full part of the problem.
Let's see the reasons why.
The system we live in generate paradoxes and one of them is sustainable development. Paradoxes are usually driving to madness (schizophreny to be precise).
As Alex puts it, if I choose to stay in the system, I have no choice but to fight for my own survival. In the meantime, I must be aware that I contribute to keep the system running on the same bases usually faster and with more efficiency (paradoxes production : mass production of ecofriendly products or of standard ethics for instance).
If I choose to be out the system, I loose all efficiency in terms of action to change the system but I'm safe at least for a while (out of system paradoxes but generating others at another level).
A third path would be to be in and out. In other terms, to use the system and its limits. Then we are all the system producers and yet mass producers of it . And as human beings we produce change yet, our cells evolve, we change at every minute. So we're yet mass producing change internally and externally. The change Alex is calling for is for me behind, old hat. Surprising, no ?
Question is where am I standing between the I and the we ? No single answer but diversity. Cultivating diversity but not too much to be a unique "I and we". Then no more paradoxes because I don't have to make the choice between I and we : I live as "I and we". And change is freed and can happen at both levels.


Posted by: swimmer21 on 13 Sep 07

This is a wonderful piece Alex; as the first responder said, one that brings with it a moment of silence once you are done reading it.

While we may not all share the same future vision of the world, we can broaden our vision and others by sharing it. Having just read the Tipping Point, social epidemics can explode when there are specific contextual changes and types of people spreading them.

Get invested by changing people not just your own life.


Posted by: Carl on 13 Sep 07

thanx allen for a very interesting post. i would add to your titel a "NOW", cause we should really act now.
Twoday i read and heard two quite interesting statements which do actually confuse me and probably many people.
On the one hand rob from transitionculture.org writes in his blog that he doesn't join the Teach-In (International Forum on Globalisation) cause he promised himselve not to fly anymore.
On the other hand austrian Scientist Marina Fischer-Kowalski states in an austrian radio-program that the internet consumes as much energy as all the air traffic.

so the question is: did rob change the world by not going by plane but instead posting to his blog in the internet?

the tragedy on our actions twoday is that we still don't have a glue of what the consequences really are. don't misunderstand me. I do not wanna convict rob for not going by plane. his activities in transitional town totnes are great. i just wann mention that energy consuption is in nearly every movement of our life.


Posted by: roland dunzendorfer on 13 Sep 07

Bootstraping anyone?

Start moving along the path of "need less", and then use the extra time and resources to move forward into that path.

Also, with your freed time, help others do with less. And let others help you: create a triplet of people to go on a diet together (yes: micro-loans are also for small groups).

Systemic undoing. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration - only you start with 1% perspiration and that gets you into the next 2%, then 4%, and so on.

Bold vision, small first step.

Or, if you're near a "systemic sensitive point", then by all means do push that button.


Posted by: lugon on 13 Sep 07

Bootstraping anyone?

Start moving along the path of "need less", and then use the extra time and resources to move forward into that path.

Also, with your freed time, help others do with less. And let others help you: create a triplet of people to go on a diet together (yes: micro-loans are also for small groups).

Systemic undoing. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration - only you start with 1% perspiration and that gets you into the next 2%, then 4%, and so on.

Bold vision, small first step.

Or, if you're near a "systemic sensitive point", then by all means do push that button.


Posted by: lugon on 13 Sep 07

You had me cheering until the last few paragraphs. We do need to trust our wildest desires about what a future could look like. And lifestyle environmentalist is more about placating our guilty consciousnesses rather than thinking about actual change....And we do need transformative change. This is usually called revolution, yet here it manifests itself as a wimpy call to run for office, start new companies, write new books...how about tearing up roads and trashing bulldozers (you are, after all, quoting Edward Abbey). More importantly, what about envisioning not a bright shiny solar-powered and electric car future with better mayors and better enterprises -- what about envisioning the large scale collapse of industrial civilization which has already proven itself to be incredibly violent and completely unsustainable? "Mass production" itself, is a byproduct of the technocratic mindset that is part of the problem....


Posted by: ERS on 13 Sep 07

In the late 1970s, I was part of an anti-nuclear affinity group that operated a traveling energy show. We criss-crossed the Northeast for a couple of years demonstrating solar and wind power, educating people about energy conservation, efficiency, and the dangers and expense of nuclear power. We did it for about three years and estimated we performed our show before at least 250,000 people at energy fairs (remember those?), anti-nuke demonstrations, and state fairs.

During the same time, some of us organized the Urban Solar Energy Association, now the Boston Area Solar Energy Association (http://www.basea.org) and did a number of solar barn-raisings throughout the different neighborhoods and surrounding towns. We built solar greenhouses and attics, air heaters, and water heaters. At one point, we were the fastest growing and probably the largest local solar association in the country.

As part of that effort, I produced four solar PSAs for broadcast TV. We got a grant from the War Tax Resisters and sent copies out to all the local TV stations. We even got them on TV. I saw one, once, at 2 am on the weekend.

In the 1990s, I videotaped all the monthly lectures of BASEA and put them on community cable. I produced another set of PSAs, copied them and took them around to all the local stations. Only one agreed to show them but then reneged. None of the stations returned the tapes though all promised they would.

Now I have some of my old videos and some new ones up on youtube (search for "gmoke"). I have one room essentially off-grid with solar LED lights and a solar/dynamo radio battery charger. I'm all right, on an individual level, but I've failed, miserably, in convincing anybody but a couple of friends that there's another way and those friends I convinced were already inclined to the green and the sun in the first place.

I write this not to promote my own ego but to provide some context and share my experience. Maybe somebody who knows how to get things done, as I obviously do not, can learn something from this little bit of history. Yes, we need a mass produced change but the whole social/political/economic/cultural structure mitigates against it. Perhaps the pennies per kw solar collector will arrive and make all this moot but I ain't gonna hold my breath.

People, in general, don't want to change. Eric Hoffer starts his book, _The Ordeal of Change_, by relating a story of his days picking field crops as a migrant worker. He had been picking peas but pea season was over. The next day, he was to start picking beans and he lay awake in his bunk worried and uneasy about the change from picking peas to picking beans. Change is uncomfortable and difficult, he realized, even the change from peas to beans. Imagine how difficult it must be to change from oil to sunlight not only on an individual scale but on a national, industrial, commercial scale.

Further complicating things, renewables generate no cashflow. You buy a solar collector or windmill and you stop paying that monthly bill for power. That's anti-capitalistic. How can you run a business that way? You're "independent," no longer reliant on the power structure. All you pay for is maintenance. Where's the profit in that? That, I believe, is the visceral reaction of most businesspeople to renewables. It is something I've observed over the thirty years I've worked on this problem. It is an enormous hurdle that still exists and will exist for many years to come. People have been trying to jump that hurdle since at least 1914 when Edison and Ford teamed up to develop home energy generating systems and got stopped cold (see Edwin Black's _Internal Combustion_ for the full story or http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/2/7/13350/83647 for an outline of the story).

There is mass market solar out there. There are solar watches and calculators and solar walk or garden lights. Only problem is the last mass market solar product was the solar garden light. It was first manufactured by Chronar Corporation as a way to sell its amorphous silicon PV panels in the mid-80s. It took at least 20 years to go from initial manufacture to the corner hardware store and Chronar went broke more than a decade before that transition.

We don't have the luxury of another 20 years any more. I hope that somebody learns from history and my generation's mistakes and makes it happen - soon. Sorry I didn't do a better job.


Posted by: gmoke on 13 Sep 07

In the late 1970s, I was part of an anti-nuclear affinity group that operated a traveling energy show. We criss-crossed the Northeast for a couple of years demonstrating solar and wind power, educating people about energy conservation, efficiency, and the dangers and expense of nuclear power. We did it for about three years and estimated we performed our show before at least 250,000 people at energy fairs (remember those?), anti-nuke demonstrations, and state fairs.

During the same time, some of us organized the Urban Solar Energy Association, now the Boston Area Solar Energy Association (http://www.basea.org) and did a number of solar barn-raisings throughout the different neighborhoods and surrounding towns. We built solar greenhouses and attics, air heaters, and water heaters. At one point, we were the fastest growing and probably the largest local solar association in the country.

As part of that effort, I produced four solar PSAs for broadcast TV. We got a grant from the War Tax Resisters and sent copies out to all the local TV stations. We even got them on TV. I saw one, once, at 2 am on the weekend.

In the 1990s, I videotaped all the monthly lectures of BASEA and put them on community cable. I produced another set of PSAs, copied them and took them around to all the local stations. Only one agreed to show them but then reneged. None of the stations returned the tapes though all promised they would.

Now I have some of my old videos and some new ones up on youtube (search for "gmoke"). I have one room essentially off-grid with solar LED lights and a solar/dynamo radio battery charger. I'm all right, on an individual level, but I've failed, miserably, in convincing anybody but a couple of friends that there's another way and those friends I convinced were already inclined to the green and the sun in the first place.

I write this not to promote my own ego but to provide some context and share my experience. Maybe somebody who knows how to get things done, as I obviously do not, can learn something from this little bit of history. Yes, we need a mass produced change but the whole social/political/economic/cultural structure mitigates against it. Perhaps the pennies per kw solar collector will arrive and make all this moot but I ain't gonna hold my breath.

People, in general, don't want to change. Eric Hoffer starts his book, _The Ordeal of Change_, by relating a story of his days picking field crops as a migrant worker. He had been picking peas but pea season was over. The next day, he was to start picking beans and he lay awake in his bunk worried and uneasy about the change from picking peas to picking beans. Change is uncomfortable and difficult, he realized, even the change from peas to beans. Imagine how difficult it must be to change from oil to sunlight not only on an individual scale but on a national, industrial, commercial scale.

Further complicating things, renewables generate no cashflow. You buy a solar collector or windmill and you stop paying that monthly bill for power. That's anti-capitalistic. How can you run a business that way? You're "independent," no longer reliant on the power structure. All you pay for is maintenance. Where's the profit in that? That, I believe, is the visceral reaction of most businesspeople to renewables. It is something I've observed over the thirty years I've worked on this problem. It is an enormous hurdle that still exists and will exist for many years to come. People have been trying to jump that hurdle since at least 1914 when Edison and Ford teamed up to develop home energy generating systems and got stopped cold (see Edwin Black's _Internal Combustion_ for the full story or http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/2/7/13350/83647 for an outline of the story).

There is mass market solar out there. There are solar watches and calculators and solar walk or garden lights. Only problem is the last mass market solar product was the solar garden light. It was first manufactured by Chronar Corporation as a way to sell its amorphous silicon PV panels in the mid-80s. It took at least 20 years to go from initial manufacture to the corner hardware store and Chronar went broke more than a decade before that transition.

We don't have the luxury of another 20 years any more. I hope that somebody learns from history and my generation's mistakes and makes it happen - soon. Sorry I didn't do a better job.


Posted by: gmoke on 13 Sep 07

Gee, gmoke, we appreciate your efforts (I'm getting tired too) -- but when the necessary isn't profitable, I pay taxes to get it done.

Like fire stations.

Springfield Solar Conversion District Station Number One. With sliding pole and dalmation if we want. I'd work there...


Posted by: risa on 14 Sep 07

Actually, we DO need millions of people leading marginally greener lifestyles. Spitting on a forest fire does nothing, but millions of people spitting on the fire will put it out, or at least slow the spread of the flames until the professional firefighters arrive.

Alex, you said we ought to "demand from ourselves, action commensurate to the crisis." You're absolutely right. The crisis is here and now. We don't have time to redesign society.

Nothing you wrote in your column is untrue or misguided. We need as many people as possible to radically change how they interact with the world around them. However, considering "the crisis," you can't afford to risk losing people by asking too much. To borrow marketing terminology, you want your foot in the door, not the door in your face.

Also, we're only just now seeing kids who grew up recycling (or at least aware of global issues) become old enough to lead governments, organizations, and businesses. While there may be numerous negative feedback loops threatening the world, we may be at the beginning of many positive feedback loops in society--many of which are featured on this very site! Don't assume that small, consumer-oriented changes will yield small, linear improvements in the environment. They just may be exponential. After all, we are NOT living in watertight cabins aboard a rudderless ship. Everything we do is connected.

Yes, everyone who reads this blog should be inspired to get up, get out, and do all the heavy lifting. Good businessmen know that only 20% of your customers comprise 80% of your business. For the other 80% of customers out there, however, you have to sell them bamboo shirts and compact flourescent bulbs. You MUST get your foot in the door.

The civil rights movement in the United States existed in various forms since the first African slaves arrived. The movement exploded, however, with a simple bus boycott. One could argue that the most successful social movement in the U.S. started when people in Alabama stopped patronizing a bus company.

It's tough to settle for "getting your foot in the door" when what you really want to do is knock down the door, drag everybody outside, and get them to join the rabble. But as they say in sports, you gotta take what the defense is giving you.

Get your foot in the door, just don't forget to keep pushing.


Posted by: Dave on 15 Sep 07

This piece is really wonderful and an excellent call to arms. I have shared it with my coven and hopefully to spread it as far as I can. Thank you for writing something so moving and so inspiring.


Posted by: Heather O'Malley on 15 Sep 07

i remember this guy in berkeley (the naked guy) used to take a hammer to his concrete driveway to get the soil back from lame parking space use, but he suicided in prison last year. and it's not really self-sustaining to get arrested all the time for trying to block freeways (co2), market street (iraq), safeway (pesticide food).

where i live, someone went and spraypainted a stenciled "driving" under all the stopsigns. it's great, but not massively transformative. a few people could also stand at a busy intersection w/ "why are you killing your own planet by driving" signs and hand out flyers to drivers, to reach the normal people who are too busy to think about these issues. would that help? although i like the shock value of it, it's too negative. most people would be like, WTF, what are they trying to say?

people probably respond better to hope. like "hey, lose weight, feel great and cut your global warming car pollution by riding a bike, enjoy this free coupon to local bike shops"... w/ a cost savings chart

... i feel like the normal short- and long-term approach is going to be what we have to work with, until 2009 anyway. long-term as in imposing carbon taxes, green building incentives and mixed land use thru zoning; short-term as in asking people to "live greener" w/ CFL bulbs, organic food and buying "greener cars" (for example) even though cars are not at all green. it's a change resistance issue. there isn't a week or month when everyone would stop driving to bike and bus instead, is there? aren't we individually doing enough as it is? or do we dream big and do this no-driving campaign like bill mckibben's stepitup events?

the article poses the problem of the "11th hour" and that we must change society overnight, the way things are going, before they get worse. most ppl think we can muddle through and let "them" fix things. quality of life has been dropping for decades now, it can't get any worse right? (real income, commute times, health benefits, income inequality) then again, margaret mead said a minority makes change that affects the majority. enough from me, would love to know what the rest of you think.


Posted by: Ken on 16 Sep 07

I do not agree with you...at least completely.

It is true that the world's collective crises cannot be solved without people involved in the political process.

But sometimes people have to change themselves before they get involved in something larger. The actions you almost ridicule are some people's first steps in personal responsibility.

To say these are not enough is honest. But you should not denigrate them.

Paul Robbins
www.environmentaldirectory.info/


Posted by: Paul Robbins on 16 Sep 07

Thanks, Alex. I am in the middle of planning international conference on Sustainable Production and Consumption. This definitely tied things up amid the busy shuffle.


Posted by: B on 16 Sep 07

Drawing on something another commenter has said, certain very crucial technological developments offer very little in the way of long-term profit for major industries. No private energy firm gains from increasing energy efficiency overall, and private firms dominate the market. They may benefit from transitions, say people paying more of a premium for green power, but actually using substantially less power, or full home generation? What do they get from that? What does a manufacturing company based on economies of scale get from switching over to long-term, durable products against programmed obsolescence that eats up energy and resources?

No particular interest with sizable capital benefits from these changes, and so they dont really press them as hard as they might or should, even and despite the potential market.

This is just another way of saying what I take to be your point- consumer action, though significant, has severe limitations that we can see easily if we look at the structure of the industries involved.

It seems to me though that federal intervention, government intervention, is a little restrictive also, in part because it is based on outweighing already powerful interests through one-by-one voter action.

The civil sphere, the realm of civic organization that are neither primarily business-oriented nor directly government, seems the best possibility for real change. Though we have a bit of a dilemma here, since it is precisely that sector that has collapsed in the past few decades.

Maybe part of building a stronger environmental movement lies in rejuvenating this sphere. For instance, there are enormous environmental groups in America, but they spend much of their revenue on political advocacy and lobbying. How much did the Sierra Club spend lobbying against ANWR? What would have been the result if an equal amount of revenue had gone to setting up city volunteer organizations to weatherize homes en masse for working and middle class families? I dont know of course, but it might be a significant question.

One step might be for already existing environmental organizations to commit themselves to large-scale direct action, not necessarily in the sense of angrier political demonstrations, but in the sense of targeted, participatory civic intervention, or even using their reputations, funds and connections to establish municipal green power or local green manufacturing coops.

Might be too much to ask of them alone, but partnered with unions perhaps, pension funds, etc.?


Posted by: donald on 17 Sep 07

"Be the change" is a prefectly adequate description for the action needed - leave Gandhi alone!

Frankly, I think this urge to repackage something (in this case, a quotation) which is perfectly suited to the situation points to the deeper underlying problem our society faces - the quest for novelty, and the natural assumption of obsolescence.

Apart from that, nice rant. To quote Bruce Sterling, I bet that felt great - can we talk like adults now?


Posted by: Matt on 18 Sep 07

I think Alex makes an important point that we have to go beyond individual lifestyle actions, but I also feel that these actions IF taken by enough people can help toward reducing consumption and should not be denigrated.

So what I think is that, yes, people should do whatever they can in their personal lives to reduce their consumption, but Alex is right in that it is nearly impossible for the average person to reduce their ecological footprint to zero with individual fixes. For instance, I just can't afford solar photovoltaic panels. So we need to go beyond these individual actions and we need to talk about some concrete things that people can do beyond their individual consumer lives. Alex says, we “need brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory and universal characteristic of our society." Yes, no doubt, but pardon me for saying that is rather vague and general. I encourage Alex and others to come up with some more specific things that people can do.

If we all come up with enough good ideas and implement them then it may actually be possible, if one does enough outside of one's personal consumptive life, that rather than merely having a zero ecological footprint that one can have a negative (as in less than zero) ecological footprint by doing enough to offset one's consumption and more.

So, for instance, and pardon me for repeating myself (I've mentioned this before on another post on this site), I got elected to the school board at my school and got them to install energy efficient lights in the entire school, over 200 fixtures. Not to blow my own horn, but there would still be inefficient lights wasting power at my kids’ school if I did not push for new more efficient lights. And I have recently written for a grant to get photovoltaic panels installed at the same school (the grant is pending, I'll find out in November if it is awarded). And I recently found out that the USDA might have grant money available for photovoltaic panels for schools in rural areas, which is where I live. So if I get these grants the clean power produced will be more than double power I use at my home. Inching my way to a less than zero ecological footprint. The question should be "how low can you go?"

So all you tax payers and parents out there, either get elected to or lobby your school boards and get them to stop wasting money and destroying the environment with outmoded lighting systems, poorly insulated buildings, and power that comes from fossil fuels. And, while you are at it, get them to push for a greener curriculum as well.

Another possibility to go beyond one’s self is to push for a greener work spaces and greener decisions such as buying energy efficient office equipment. If you are in a management position it's time to start making green decisions at work.

And it should go without saying that everyone needs to lobby their congresspersons to push for green legislation such as a moratorium on new coal fired power plants.

That's my two-sense worth. I'd love to hear other ideas about what others have done and what else is possible.


Posted by: Tavita on 19 Sep 07

Hi Alex,

I guess this debate isn't over yet.

http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/9/11/13338/9554/?source=daily

Cheers


Posted by: Tavita on 21 Sep 07

And a follow-up.

http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/9/20/131247/105/?source=daily


Posted by: Tavita on 21 Sep 07

Be the change
Gandhi said

Gandhi also thought that swadeshi, self reliance, was the soul of satyagraha
http://www.mkgandhi.org/momgandhi/chap86.htm
"The message of the spinning-wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. That larger message is naturally for all...

"The message of the spinning-wheel is, really, to replace the spirit of exploitation by the spirit of service...

"There is no "playing with truth" in the charkha programme, for satyagraha is not predominantly civil disobedience but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of Truth."
http://www.mkgandhi.org/momgandhi/chap86.htm

We need a Solar Swadeshi
http://solarray.blogspot.com/2005/05/solar-swadeshi-hand-made-electricity.html


Posted by: gmoke on 23 Sep 07

I hate to say it... because I don't want to change either, but...

It's going to take shame and government to change this system of destruction. We need to shame those who are "spitting on the forest fire," until they begin to vote for change. People will change when something hurts. Ultimately, Ghandi caused change by successfully inflicting great shame upon the British empire.


Posted by: Darren L on 29 Sep 07

I hate to say it... because I don't want to change either, but...

It's going to take shame and government to change this system of destruction. We need to shame those who are "spitting on the forest fire," until they begin to vote for change. People will change when something hurts. Ultimately, Ghandi caused change by successfully inflicting great shame upon the British empire.


Posted by: Darren L on 29 Sep 07

(last comment reclarified)
I hate to say it... because I don't want to change either, but...

It's going to take shame and government to change this system of destruction. We need to shame those who are NOT "spitting on the forest fire," until they start, until they begin to vote for change. People will change when something hurts. Ultimately, Ghandi caused change by successfully inflicting great shame upon the British empire.


Posted by: Darren L on 29 Sep 07

(last comment reclarified)
I hate to say it... because I don't want to change either, but...

It's going to take shame and government to change this system of destruction. We need to shame those who are NOT "spitting on the forest fire," until they start, until they begin to vote for change. People will change when something hurts. Ultimately, Ghandi caused change by successfully inflicting great shame upon the British empire.


Posted by: Darren L on 29 Sep 07



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