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Invidividual Action vs Collective Action
Colin Beavan, 18 Dec 08

52503407_b9c856ce50.jpgA continuing debate erupts within the environmental movement about the relative merits of individual versus collective action. Back in 2007, on the subject of individual action, The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote,

You can change lights. You can change cars. But if you don't change leaders, your actions are nothing more than an expression of, as Dick Cheney would say, "personal virtue."

I heard criticisms like Friedman's constantly throughout a one-year project in environmental living that I took on under the moniker No Impact Man. What difference can one person make? Having had a lot of critics who forced me to look at the issue, I've come to some conclusions.

Firstly, there is one circumstance under which one person absolutely cannot make a difference: if that one person doesn't try. And if we don't try, who among us knows whether we have foregone the chance to influence the people around us? Which one of us knows for sure that, by applying our talents and efforts to what we believe in, whether we might become a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Bobby Kennedy or an Al Gore or a Betty Friedan or a Nelson Mandela?

Not that these great names are necessarily the most important aspects of movements. They are only symbols of the thousands and millions of people upon whose shoulders they stood. They are simply the straws we say broke the camel's back. But those straws did not do the trick. It is the thousands and thousands of straws that come before that weakened the proverbial camel's back enough to be broken. The one person or action that breaks the back is often the one that history recognizes. But the domino that begins the domino effect requires all of us to be in line in order for the chain reaction to take place.

Of course, Friedman is correct to suggest we need collective action on climate change. We need gigantic investment in green infrastructure. We need regulation to curb industry excesses. We need an entire new economic mindset. These things cannot be done by individuals. Those of us who are concerned about our environmental crisis must get involved in the political arena and find ways to keep pressure on our politicians in this regard.

But to suggest that collective and individual actions are mutually exclusive, or even different, is wrongheaded and dangerous. It ignores the way cultures change, the responsibilities of citizens, and our potential as agents of change. Collective action is nothing more than the aggregation of individual actions. And individual action does not preclude involvement in collective action. In fact, it absolutely demands it. The two work together.

Think about this: How much more convincing is an advocate for urban bike lanes who rides his bike every day? Who is more convincing, an advocate for climate change mitigation who takes the subway or one who drives alone in an SUV? Living our values across all areas of our individual lives -- from the private to the public -- demonstrates an integrity and conviction that can help persuade the skeptics.

This climate problem is so big that we need a change in the culture. We need to look at the way we live. We need to find a good life that does not depend so much on energy and material throughput. And Government is not in the business of telling us how to live. Government is in the business of facilitating the way of life the people have chosen. Therefore, if we want to ensure that the planet maintains its ability to support us, we have to choose differently. This is a battle not just for votes, but for hearts and for minds. Hearts and minds are changed by individuals, not by governments.

We know we have to change the system, but we must also remember that the system is only a collection of individuals. What the system does is just the aggregation of all of our individual actions: as citizens, as shareholders, as CEOs, as product designers, as customers, as friends, as family members and as voters. We have to stop waiting for the system to change, and remember that every decision we make in our homes and in our workplace amounts to "the system."

We need to pick up a new model of "engaged citizenship," in which we realize that the way we live affects everyone around us. We need to develop new ways to take up and assert our responsibility. We need to take "participatory democracy" to a new level, where we don't just vote for the leaders who will bring us the culture we want, but where we take responsibility for making the culture ourselves.

What we'll get in return is the feeling of a life fully lived, one in which we are not victims of the system but leaders of it. Where we choose instead of inherit. Where we stride purposefully instead of sleepwalk. Where we are true masters of our destiny.

Colin Beavan writes and administers, a meeting point for discussion of environmental issues, lifestyle redesign, political engagement and citizen responses to our planetary emergency from a "deep green" perspective. Beavan's experiment in lifestyle redesign is the subject of his book (scheduled for publication in September 2009 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and a documentary by independent filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Eden Wurmfeld.

Photo: "Critical Mass, Wacker Drive." Credit flickr/Payton Chung, Creative Commons license.

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"But to suggest that collective and individual actions are mutually exclusive, or even different, is wrongheaded and dangerous."

I hadnt read Friedman this way. Is he making a distinction btwn individual action and collective action or a distinction between actions aimed at the middle class - like change your lightbulbs - and actions that have a greater impact - like change your leaders?

I have to admit, I enjoy his stab at "205 ways to save the planet." These top ten lists, they are sometimes an embarrassment.

For e.g., I told an Indian friend about "Buy nothing day" and he said, "Ha. Almost every day for me is buy nothing day."

Posted by: Xanthe on 18 Dec 08

I agree with Colin. Part of the paralysis thus far preventing our civilization from achieving true sustainaability is our sense that we can't make a difference; that only major policy change will do the trick. So we wait for elected leaders to do the right thing. Trouble is, most of them aren't leaders. As the old saying goes, they figure out which way the parade is going and then jump out in front.

So, are you ready to lead? You can do it in your individual life and in your community. And those actions will ultimately be noted by national "leaders." It's not logical to expect your nation to achieve environmental sustainability if it's full of cities acting unsustainably. Think globally, act locally!

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
Join the cause at

Posted by: Dave Gardner on 19 Dec 08

Thanks for your article. Sometimes I wonder if what I'm doing does make a difference. I'm encouraged. Just last night I started a My Space blog. Today, after reading two articles in the Christian Science Monitor on our ocean and our wildlife, I felt motivated to share my concerns in a blog on My Space. I hope to educated and motivate others in some way. I'm an older Baby Boomer who remembers when I first heard the word "environment" way back in the early sixties. I knew then it was important.

Posted by: Imnangel on 19 Dec 08

Finally, someone is actually saying what I have been thinking for so long. I do what I think is right in my everyday life. Sometimes it's really inconvenient to do the right thing, but I still do it, because I really feel that individual change makes a huge difference. I am part of a few organizations that are working for change, but generally, I have found that dragging my friends over and saying "look at this tiny bag of trash ... that's from 2 people over 2 weeks!" is more effective than preaching conservation and frugality. People need to see others doing the "impossible" before many of them will actually take action and make changes themselves. All of us need to be the example we want to see for change in the world.

Posted by: kristy on 19 Dec 08

To use your own domino metaphor, individual action can be merely a green hobby if the dominos are scattered around randomly and don't connect into a chain. Individual green action must be embedded within a productive group context to be something other than a green hobby.

If you're a domino and you only get to tip once, you ought to make sure you're in a line and not alone.

And I agree with Xanthe's comment above. I think Friedman is merely asking for individual action embedded in a context of coordinated group action.

Posted by: Mark Powell on 19 Dec 08

Individual actions are necessary to make changes. However individuals are not separated from the community and should not be separated from the community. Beavan also suggests collective actions such as "engaged citizenship." So we need to think about the nature of community. When a community is like sand, it does not have a collective power. But when members of a community are connected to each other like a chemical compound, members of the community experience the connection through which they influence and are influenced by each other, sharing life together with each other. In this model, they also create synergistic energy, which strengthens the community.

Posted by: Sung Ho Lee on 20 Dec 08

Saying "We know we have to change the system, but we must also remember that the system is only a collection of individuals"is a wrong headed understanding of social systems. Social systems are not just collections of individuals they are "things" in and of themselves. No individual creates the language we use, the rules we obey, the economy that feeds us. The social system creates and responds to forces outside the control of any individual. And it is the social system that is heading for disaster (we are just along for the ride), and if we are to avoid the disaster our social system must change.
Focusing on individual action in isolation is a waste of time.

Posted by: jim moore on 20 Dec 08

First off, I want to commend Colin Beavan's personal example. Raised as an evangelical Christian, I will never doubt the power of "individual witness." And women sharing their stories in personal discussion groups built a critique, which became a once powerful women's liberation movement remaining in published books and women's studies programs. Yes, there are elements of "running the marathon," "walking for charity," and other primarily personal challenges in the "no impact' lifestyle, but the "no impact" challenge does make a real contribution to the health of the planet, however small.

The problem I have with the post is that is has tip-toed into the territory of False Dichotomy. Group action covers a whole spectrum; it's not just working for political candidates, voting, and endless pressuring and petitioning. Dave Gardner's critique of political leaders in his comment is particularly apt. I would add, that when political leaders respond to public demand, THEY shape the demand and frame the issue--not for the sake of planet but for political expediency. Global warming is way too critical a challenge to be met by sausage legislation (think the recent Farm Bill) and legalistic decisions that do not settle an issue (think Roe v. Wade). CSAs, bicycle advocacy groups, etc, can through their efforts create a counterculture, challenge the larger status quo, and frame solutions that are equal to the climate challenge, but they have to nourish these wider aims or, yes, become green hobbies. That's hard to do when one defines group power as political and political as electoral politics.

Lastly, I agree with Jim Moore. "The system"--a common formulation in the Sixties roughly equivalent the power structure--seems to have become benign and readily changeable over the decades. Every time a politician talks about "energy independence" instead of "global carbon emissions" we hear the messaging of the system. It is no accident that the system addresses environmentally aware people as a niche market amenable to "greenwashing" and buying eco products. The system wants to maintain our status quo "American way of life," and will fight with all its mighty tools, media, celebrity, and political power to keep it.

Group action is more than good citizenship. Voting good candidates in can prove as ineffectual as changing lightbulbs if we don't define group action in larger terms than the voting booth.

Posted by: Frances Chapman on 21 Dec 08

I feel very strongly that the best way to bring about collective action is to make those actions very easy to accomplish – such that they are the only reasonable way to do things. For example, Al Gore wanted to create a CO2 tax and reduce payroll and earned-income taxes. This is fair if you’re a minor contributor of emissions. And if you want to save money, you’ll change your lifestyle: move into a city and figure out how to get around without a car.

The best ideas may come from individuals rather than from government, but the government should provide funding and changes in policy to support these ideas.

Car sharing is an example of this: these services have created a system that has made it very easy for people to ditch their cars and still have access to cars when they need them. Members of these programs voluntarily drive considerably less than as car owners without feeling any sacrifice in their travel, and they quite often take up car sharing for financial reasons – not because they’re environmentalists. The environmental and lifestyle impacts are tremendous. Car sharing provides a model for how we might set up other ways to make it easy to do things sensibly. The carrot & stick approach from Al Gore works, as well as carrot-only approach.

Tanya Seaman
Founding Executive Director, PhillyCarShare

Posted by: Tanya Seaman on 22 Dec 08

Individual actions always involve collectivity, alone we are not as strong as a group, please see on eurosportbet TV, kindly, Brat

Posted by: Brat on 4 Oct 10

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