This article was written by Alex Steffen in September 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
"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.
Don't Just Be the Change, Mass-Produce It is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
Environmental crisis is a social crisis, I agree with you there. But it's quite clear that the established political process is too slow to react to a crisis which is both endemic to our civilization and global in scale. In your call to mass action, you implore us to "start better companies" or "run for office" but neither of these is sufficient to overthrow the dominance of vested interests in government/big business.
So while it's clear that you're doing important work (We're all Bruce Sterling fans) I don't see any evidence that the change you seek is anywhere near radical enough.