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The Revolution Will Not Be Hand-Made: A Quick Sunday-Morning Rant
Alex Steffen, 1 Nov 09

(A first stab at articulating some ideas. Thoughtful feedback welcome.)

We're nearing an inflection point in our discussions about sustainability and building a bright green future.

Mainly, this is because we're realizing that our task is larger and more pressing than we thought even a few years ago. It's not enough to be less destructive, to be more sustainable. We need to actually start being non-destructive, being as close to sustainable as we understand how to get. And we need to do it quickly. As Dana Meadows said, in an era where we seem to be running hard up against the limits of so many natural systems, the ultimate limit turns out to be time. If we don't make truly massive shifts in the next decade or so, we're committing ourselves to huge troubles; if we here in the developed world don't transform ourselves in the next two decades, we're committing ourselves and our descendants to catastrophe.

Given how far we need to go, how quickly (I think we need -- for reasons I'll explain in another piece -- about a 95% reduction in our impacts in the next two decades), we can't waste time on what doesn't work. We're being forced, I think, to look at our solutions with a colder eye and clearer judgment. What works? What scales? What has the best political chances of happening? What can make money or creative infectious behavioral change or in some other way self-replicate? What solutions, in short, could work?

Everything else -- all the solutions that don't make that cut -- are at best distractions, and in our current situation, where we're fighting in the public debate for mindshare for real change (and change-stalling propaganda surrounds us), even distractions are not incidental. The idea that every small step is a good thing is simply wrong.

We have inherited a whole set of solutions by conventional wisdom, many of them surrounding lifestyle choices. Almost all of us believe that someone who buys local food, who drives a hybrid, who lives in a well-insulated house, who wears organic clothing and who religiously recycles and composts and avoids unnecessary purchases is living sustainably.

They are not. As we've explored a bunch of times in different ways here on Worldchanging, the parts of our lives that actually fall within our direct control are the tips of systemic icebergs, and often changing them does nothing to alter those systems: not individually, not in small groups, not even in larger lifestyle movements. If we're going to avoid catastrophe, we need to change those larger systems, and change them for everyone, and change them quickly.

It's quite clear that some of the "solutions" we embrace don't actually motivate people to change at all. There's hard evidence suggesting that most of the time, small steps do not actually motivate people to later take larger steps (most people adopt a small change or two and then feel they've done their part and stop).

Other times, we ask people to pay attention to the wrong things. Though the efforts some contrarians' make to discredit local food verge on the absurd, the fact remains that food miles are not the most important measurement of food system sustainability. Perhaps more importantly, some observers' suggest that local food often serves as a substitute for systemic engagement in movements to change agricultural systems at the largest levels, and I think there;s truth there. Certainly, many of us have a tendency to engage in iconic consumption, without really examining the entirety of our impact and whether our time and money might best be spent trying to effect change in some other way.

That's not to say that its wrong to garden or recycle or buy CFLs. It's not. It's never wrong to try to live a life that's internally consonant with the change we want to see in the world. Most of those life choices also make us healthier, happier and better off in the long run. So no harm in doing them (disclosure: I garden, recycle and use CFLs). Some personal choices, like forgoing beef and living without a car, not only create some measurable impact, they're also public enough to signal your beliefs. But we still shouldn't mistake these things for creating sustainable systems. Until we have systems that reduce the numbers of cows and cars we all use, we're not making any real progress at all.

We can no longer afford to mistake the symbolic for the effective, or put our hopes in the mystical idea that if enough of us embrace small steps, our values will ripple mysteriously out through the culture and utterly transform it. We've been saying that for more than 40 years, it hasn't happened and we need to stop lying to ourselves that it will. Live the life that fits your values, but don't mistake that for changing the world.

Far too much of the debate about sustainability still orbits around ideas of smallness, slowness, simplicity, relocalization that often obscure the reality of our lives from us. Their main virtue is that they make incredibly complex systems that we cannot change alone seem susceptible to easy understanding and quick transformation through personal choice. In other words, they let us deceive ourselves in ways that are extremely comforting.

We need to be better than that. We need to be bigger than that. We need to understand that a bright green future will look like nothing that has ever come before, and will involve us changing the fabric of our lives, not just the ornament. It will involve needing to be more connected to global networks of people working towards change, more committed to seeking understanding and transparency in complexity, more engaged with systems that make us feel small -- because we are small, and the world is complex, and we can't do this alone.

We're redesigning our civilization. We need to be people who are tackling the most important systems around us, employing tools that can change them quickly at scale. We need to get comfortable talking policy, working in parallel collaborations, thinking in systems, understanding infrastructures and markets and flows, and using money to power comprehensive transformations.

The opposite of democracy is depoliticization. The idea that "regular" people can't do this is insultingly elitist, psychologically isolating and inherently depoliticizing. Of course we can. Even those of us who lack formal education in these fields are entirely capable of contributing in important ways to big efforts -- if we learn to think of ourselves as connected and collaborating, and start to pay more attention.

Ah, attention. Some will stop there and say, "people are lazy! they won't pay attention to anything!" There's some truth to that. We are primates are lazy, inclined to sit around, much sweets and groom each other. But we're also curious, and passionate.

Many of us want to know how things work around us. Many of us feel passionate about the need for change. The simple hard reality is that the powers that be are incredibly effective at working to disillusion us, to make us too cynical to act in our own best interests, so overwhelmed by jargon and bureaucratic process that we get bored and go home. We are apathetic and disengaged in some very large part because that's the way some people want us to be. That's a hard truth, but still truth.

The answer to that apathy and disengagement is not to demand less from people. That hasn't worked. Instead, I think, we need to regard not being boring as one of our cardinal design principles. We need to make change interesting, and fun, and provocative, and full of good times and relationships with others and meaningful work. We need to approach complex, vast systems in terms of art, and game design, and public festivals every bit as much as in terms of reports and committees and NGOs. We need a cultural movement, for sure -- it just has to be a cultural movement aimed at making systems geekery a passionate part of the lives of regular people.

That, ultimately, is the biggest problem with the hand-made approach to sustainability: even when it works, it makes us passionate about small things in our lives, not engagement with the world. Visiting a neighbor's great backyard garden may well encourage me to want to grow my own; it doesn't encourage me to understand global agrobusiness, connect with food policy activists and do something to change the $2,000 in destructive agricultural subsidies the U.S. government pays with part of my taxes every year. The hand-made can be beautiful. It can be deeply personally meaningful. I'd like a world where the hand-made abounds. But the hand-made is not The Revolution.

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Great rant for the most part Alex. But again, I think you are forcing something into a binary either/or. I do both, engage my own lifestyle choices and act to understand and interact in debates and activities at the macro level.

But yeah if I see another organization issuing a 15 Things You Can Do To Stop Climate Change - my head may actually explode.

I think we are just starting to see the beginnings of those engaged at the top, trying to engage everyone else in the discussions. Will we all wake up and engage? Don't know.

Thanks though. This is a good one!

Posted by: Liz M owner hyperlocavore on 1 Nov 09

I tried to read this on my iPhone, before going to bed. This revealed that the article is not very scannable. After the cursory read, I have no idea what handmade revolution of the title is supposed to mean.

Posted by: Antti Rasinen on 1 Nov 09

Liz-- of course I'm oversimplifying somewhat and there are caveats and contradictions aplenty. Trying to get some ideas out of my head and into a semi-readable format (though apparently Antti would disagree with that part) demands some elision...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Nov 09

Ok, I agree. Large changes are what we need, changes in the underlying system not just its many appendages. But I think in an informed majority, everyone agrees that that is what is necessary. I like the words, they have the passion, but now that we know what needs to be done, how do we do it?

Posted by: Ben on 1 Nov 09

Are any of these 'assumptions' based on fact or merely the opinions of the author? I generally enjoy the work from Worldchanging, but this piece raises more doubts than convictions.

Posted by: Scott on 1 Nov 09

I think something that we need is vision and debate, which we're missing. Silly bills to set targets and percentage points going through government are neither visionary or really debatable. What we need are BIG ideas brought forward that the public can't help but have strong opinions about. This is the flaw of today's democracy - nobody is willing to risk suggesting something that forces us to stop and think.

We need candidates with bold yet different visions for the future. They need to be serious - as in voting will result in dramatic changes in your life. This is a governmental level example, but it applies across society. We need big options that have the potential to actually be implemented.

Which reminds me. I need to go vote in my municipal election for the candidate who wants to REDUCE car use city wide.

Posted by: Kay O. Sweaver on 1 Nov 09

Alex... you are getting there. And don't forget the inordinate obsession with "reaching" powerful ears. Build a mass movement for free public transport.

Posted by: fpteditors on 1 Nov 09

Right on Alex!
There is a fundamental disconnect between the language that’s commonly used to describe “what you can do” about climate change, and the scale of the problem.

“50 Easy Things We Can Do To Save the Planet,” is the title of a book on my shelf, which is one of many such approaches. Inside: share nature with children; put a no junk mail sticker on the letterbox; try some vegetarian meals; catch a train; carry your own string bags.

Great things to do, every one of them, but they are not going to solve the problem.

When I am presenting the Al Gore slideshow, I am careful not to tell my audience, the Arctic ice has gone into freefall it’s melting so fast and in a few years you’ll be able to sail a yacht to the north pole, so go home and change your light globes.

The problem is BIG and scary and global and all in a tangle with a whole bunch of other big problems. The solutions are little and easy and sort of cute. It just doesn’t add up, and I think it is part of the disconnect many people feel.

I think we need to scale up the language we use. We need to make full use of metaphor, symbolism and examples to assist people in their emotional journey through change.

We have rich resources to draw on, such as the narrative framework explored in mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work on “The Hero’s Journey,” where he explores how all human cultures have central, crucial, recurring myths which tell essentially the same story – the journey of a hero, who begins unprepared and inadequate, and through a separation from the “ordinary” world, a series of trials and help from special mentors, finds a way to rise, change and transcend previous limitations to meet the challenge and heal the social fabric.

This is an endlessly repeated story, told in all times, in all places. We already know it at a deep, intuitive level. We can tell it in new ways, transcending apathy and despair by tapping into this narrative structure that holds archetypal motivating power.

Posted by: Kathryn McCallum on 1 Nov 09

So where's the list of "50 things you can do to change the system"?

You've told people that their personal choices are really only a distraction from the cause, but you haven't told them what they should be doing instead.

Most folks, when trying to think beyond personal choices, can't come up with much beyond "email your senator." Which aside from being unsatisfying, seems useless a lot of the time, particularly for those who are out of step with their senators' politics.

Turn your rant into a more concrete suggestion (something more specific than "redesigning systems"), and you might get somewhere.

Posted by: Erin on 1 Nov 09

Thanks for a rich text with much that I agree with... And a few things I do not.

I do agree that the level of reduced carbon footprint/personal impact on the planet's meta-life support systems that comes from personal lifestyle choices is a nice drop in the bucket, but due to the larger systems in which we are embedded, usually fails to produce the desired outcomes at the level of scale we wish to effect. Especially when so much of our efforts are undone by developing economies lusting after our exported version of "The Good Life."

You will find no disagreement from me either on the seriousness of the challenge. However, I will challenge your "facticity" and the resulting emotions and mood which you evoke by your assessment and interpretation of the trends and information you are considering. As I read your words the possibilities you disclose seem rather grim. I can't tell if I sense outrage and sadness from you, or if reading your thoughts evokes my own sense of these things? Either way I am left in a mood of resentment and resignation about the future that leaves me feeling queasy and powerless, and that is a mood I am all too familiar with, and one I work hard to move out of it when it arises or is triggered in me.

I make this observation solely as to the emotional response I experience upon reading your piece. Make of that what you will - because of course it is all about me. (~; \

I am troubled by the phrase "powers that be" A slippery phrase that one. Yes, the edge of the status quo is alway hard to move, many vested interests do not want the kinds of changes that will create not just a sustainable world but a thrivable one - that's the job (at this stage of development in collective consciousness) of the status quo. However, the label of "powers that be" creates a separation, it reinforces an us/them mentality which is at the root of vast difficulties in life at many levels of scale. And for me, it diminishes the value of much that you have to say. If "Humanity" is a single organism - the division between those who make up the "powers that be" and those who appear to be "under their heel/thumb" are all suffering and taking sides does little to change that dynamic.

Would that I had the answer to working out the complexity of these problems! But I am only a man - and worse, I am one given to occasional despair when I think of the state of the world - which is almost all the time. It is a curse to be intelligent, educated and curious in a time of vast systemic upheaval. It is also a gift to be worked with and I do what I can, knowing it is only a tiny piece of a work far beyond my ken.

A starting point that I would propose, is to shift out of seeing the world as a set of problems to be solved - with some separate part of humanity vying for control while the rest of us suffer (an ancient and embedded story in human consciousness - but culturally constructed and maintained and therefore amenable to change) - to looking at the world as a set of concerns that we ALL share.

Along with that view, we need to be working on changing the conversation around how to address those concerns to include the voices of all those who are affected - including the voices of those who can not speak for themselves (plants, animals, the very young, the very old, the dead and the unborn) - in respectful dialogue around how to effectively identify the permanent domains of concerns that every generation will need to work through and then exploring possibilities for effective action to address those domains.

There is an amazing depth of human experience in how to address these concerns located in the indigenous world - that is nearly universally ignored by industrialized peoples. So that is a powerful place to start. It brings with it however the need to use processes that engender trust and collaboration, since virtually every industrialized nation has been pretty much barbaric in its dealings with First Nations Peoples. Canada and Australia offer wonderful models of how to respectfully reengage the wisdom of these people. They began by recognizing the barbarism of acts committed in the past and apologizing. Then opening up a dialogue and making good on their promises of inclusion.

At the same time we must blend indigenous science with all the science and technology that the industrialized world has developed to save, heal and restore rapidly decaying ecosystems.

Large-scale group process models will play an important role in bringing diverse peoples together in conversations about the creation of a thriving world. And "Thriving" is a key distinction from sustaining. Sustainable is a neutral point - neither causing harm nor fostering growth and healing. It may be embraced by many businesses, but is hardly capable of stirring the imagination to the levels required to create a world that can "support the children of all species for all time." And if you think about that phrase, you'll see that until very recently in human history, that is what the Earth was doing. Our job is to restore our relationship with the natural world in order to regain the capacity of the planet to support the children of all species for all time; and make that an organizing principle for humanity as we explore our purpose on this planet for as long as we may be privileged to be here.

I hope my views have been useful to this important dialogue you've begun.

Thanks and be well.

Posted by: Ken Homer on 1 Nov 09

Just wanted to say thanks for expressing more eloquently than I could have my main criticisms of the environmental movement.  But don't get me wrong, I support all the "10 things you can do to save the planet" (and in the spirit of disclosure I use CFLs, sold my car and stopped eating meat). But I think Alex is bang on when he said those things won't change the planet. They will mak you feel good and make you live a healthier life, but we need more than that. 

We need a system level change, but how to get it. Well if i can add a few humble ideas...

Run for office. If you have strong beliefs that don't fit the status quo, or you have visions of a radically diferent system. Then put the ideas our there. Let the people decide. You probably won't win the first time, but you will get people thinking. We often hear "why aren't the right people in power"... Maybe that's because the right people, those with the truly transformative ideas, aren't putting there names in the hat. I am pretty sure that if one person with radical ideals ran for office, more would follow. 

But it is so much more than just the political system... Alex mentioned the need for this to be social movement with art and culture on board. And again I think this is spot on. We live in a glamorous world, with rich colour texture and sound. These are far more potent than any bar graph. 

I've worked with youth engagement on climate change and conservation biology for years, but I have never succeeded in connecting with so many youth as the single day event (We Day) which brought together 16,000 youth for a day concerts, inspirational talks and glamorous production value. Music and media have so much power, it is time some of us scientists started harnassing it. 

Finally, I would just like to say that there are no shortage of things to do, but there is no true rule book on what those are. If you need inspiration sit down with a little 90 page book called "how to reimagine the world".

And remember, nobody set down a rule book on how to invent the car, but it was invented and radically changed or planet (for good and ill). Nobody laid out what needed to be done get equal rights or abolish slavery, an yet it was done, because the people that had a different vision stood up and told the world... And engaged the people... And mobilized the social system. 

Dont look for the packaged answers in a blog (even one as good as World Changing). Take inspiration from them, but imagine for yourselves. 

Thanks again Alex. 

PS I think this blog is entirely readable on an iPod. As I did so, an foolishly typed my response on said device. Apologies for the resulting spelling/grammar.  

Posted by: Tyler Kuhn on 1 Nov 09

Nice piece Alex ;) Given that we probably do need 'a 95% reduction in our impacts in the next two decades', I would posit that the only way that can happen is through a massive reduction in system throughput. I assume you have seen this talk by Saul Griffith:

Posted by: David Hodgson on 2 Nov 09

i agree with the vast majority of the sentiments in this article. Huge changes are needed, and these are daunting. We need scalable, we need positive feedback loops, we need solutions that can reduce the number of cars and cows.

What is missing from the article is what these solutions look like. I think i have one. Something we learned in kindergarten, but have largely forgotten about, in part because it is annoying. It is called sharing.

I live in an intentional community in Virginia (see Over 100 of us share 17 cars, that is more than 50 fewer than our US mainstream counterparts. We do it thru elaborate sharing systems we have developed over 40 years. We do it by looking at what cars are used for and figuring out ways to use them dramatically less. i am not talking about car pooling here (tho we do a lot of that). It is about someone going everyday to town and doing the shopping for everyone in a system that is so easy and convenient that few people think to do solo trips. It is about living and working in the same place so almost no one commutes to work in a car.

We fail to share in the mainstream because we naively design fragile sharing agreements that break. i lend you my car, it gets scratched, i never lend you anything again. We need to craft robust sharing agreements, which can withstand predictable shocks.

I live what is materially an upper middle class life style on a taxable income which is well below the poverty line. We are highly unlikely to get people to dramatically reduce their standard of living in the name of collective action to stop climate change, fortunately we dont have to.

Over 95% of your material possession site idle over 95% of the time. You dont use most of your stuff hardly at all. If you are serious about taking on climate change, sit down and figure out what your most expensive, under utilized, personal possession is and call up a trusted friend of yours and offer to lend it to them so they dont need to go buy one.

Parts of the revolution will be hand crafted.

Posted by: Paxus Calta on 2 Nov 09

This seems like an unnecessary dichotomy. Usually people who understand that the systems need to change also change their own. People who just make "green" consumer choices maybe have full time lives as teachers or carpenters and are glad to have some concrete connection to what they know is a bigger problem but are all caught up in that survival part or are contributing to the greater good in other ways. While it seems helpful to point out the priorities it does not seem to me that it is helpful to demean the small steps that everyone should also take. A collective good is often improved by individual choices that become contagious. I agree that there is an over emphasis on the individual consumer choice and appreciate the idea of focusing more on systemic change but I tend to do better work once I have my garden weeded.

Posted by: boone on 2 Nov 09

Disclaimer: I use CFBs, recycle, and bicycle to work (on fine days, which is, itself, a disclaimer). Last Saturday's 350 action day was the first demonstration I've ever been on. (It was a fine day to make a statement, meet like-minded people, and contemplate how jaded old chants could be given a makeover.)

Oh yes, and I vote as well.

While I agree that 'hand-made' small steps like the above aren't going get us very far in real terms, it is all that most people feel they are able to achieve (which, I agree, is just how some patronising types would like it to remain) I do believe that whether or not 'light' green shoots get taken to the cleaners for a 'wash, or whether they make the effort to partake in something brighter depends on how much encouragement they receive. No, the job being done on that score is not good.

The questions you raise here are pretty much what you alluded to in the piece on the Transition movement and are clearly something of a work in progress. While this thread remains free of the unproductive t'is/t'ain't dark green wrangle of the previous one, I would like to put down what's been fermenting in my brain about bright green movements. (it is correspondingly disjointed)

- If bright green is something new, it is quite possible that our use of language will distort and impede its development. As an example: I referred above to light green dabblers making the effort to achieve something brighter. Why *should* it be an effort?

- you allude several times to the idea that a bright green movement would involve a much greater level of involvement by the populace. It seems that this sort of involvement would be encouraged by a higher level of knowledge and trust empowerment (ie confidence in trust) which, in turn, would be encouraged by a higher level of transparency in how systems operate... which could encourage all that light greenery to start pointing in the right direction?

- any system promoting a greater level of participation by the populace is going to eventually come into conflict with existing government structures (I don't wish to portray all government as evil: just oriented to a central authority, which I don't think a bright green movement can be)

- Thinking on this triggers an out-of field reference to the current headaches that computer language designers are encountering in supporting parallel processing

- Web based tools, while they do improve the level engagement markedly, do not get used nearly as much as they could be. Wikis, in particular, get pretty short shrift. It seems people are more interested in engaging in immediate, but short-term, conversations like twitter and comment threads like this one. It also propagates the idea that people aren't interested in the details.

- while these ideas are in development, identify possible sources of contention (eg the central/non-centralisation of power management) and consider ways to flow around them rather than letting ideas get dammed up while the importance of one view or another is haggled over.

I hope some of that made sense.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 2 Nov 09

Let me first say that I am a big fan of diversity - be it cultural, biological or even of opinion. Having said that I agree in so far as re-localization, and conscious sustainability are only a small part of what ultimately will be a large complicated solution to our problems. When someone near minimum wage (which I hope will be much higher than it is now)can go to Wal-Mart (or whatever low cost retail store that replaces it) and buy clothes that aren't made in a sweatshop and are manufactured sustainably using organic low-impact fibers (hemp?bamboo?) we'll be a bit closer. When governments insure that citizens don't have to make sustainability a "lifestyle choice" with real meaningful regulation and taxation that requires corporations to run sustainably and when cultural attitudes change at a fundamental level to value community and the planet more than they value the hedonic treadmill of more and more voluntary consumption then we'll know we've arrived......

Posted by: andyj on 2 Nov 09

First, could you please show us some hard facts (links?) to support your thesis? How do you know the personal approach won't be enough?

Second, you talk about "attention" but fail to mention what is, to my mind, the real problem: an active, agressive enemy. The large corporations and mass media do everything possible to obfuscate the issues and drag down those few leaders who stand up to proclaim that the status quo will lead us to ruin.

Posted by: Michelle on 2 Nov 09

Alex, i respect your urgency and the need to change global systems. Mostly, the need to make the transition exciting is something that resonates with me. But it's driven you to write a rant that is overly focused on catastrophe, problems and the things you don't like. I feel your approach is lacking solutions based substance and is a little negative, you might say dark.

Posted by: shane on 2 Nov 09

To go along with your rant, I want to say that it seems everything we want done to better our lives is hindered by the federal and state government, not helped. They're archaic systems in a way, and for some reason it's not simple to get around on foot anymore, or to afford healthy food. There's so much we could be doing, with and despite this outdated system, but we're not doing it. We're suffering under the illusion of limits. We're living in jail cells without locks. I'm prepared to work the hardest I can to figure out a way to make our dreams a reality.

Posted by: Kimberly Jongsma on 2 Nov 09

Thanks for the good thinking...

System throughput can be reduced two ways: the system can do less, or cycle more.

I agree sharing is a critical part of the solution. So, too, is more accurately assessing our needs.

"unnecessary dichotomy" - not if, as I increasingly believe, solutions crowd each other out in the public mind. There's a zero-sum competition for energy to act... "A collective good is often improved by individual choices that become contagious." Sometimes, but note how rarely significant changes have gone viral.

Here's the cite on small steps
good caution on enemies: always worth remembering that the planet isn't dying, it's being killed, and the murderers have names, addresses and bank accounts

Tony-- What you're saying makes a lot of sense, and triggers some thoughts of my own that I'll try to get down soon...

"a little negative, you might say dark." except I wouldn't say either: critical doesn't equal negative; aware of consequences doesn't equal dark.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Nov 09

Call it the green war if you want to glorify it and make it a ga ga thingy.

Like the peace movement it does not have enough game if we are only trying to save the world.

But that is not your fault, it is a sickness coming from the Id?

Posted by: Dredd on 2 Nov 09

My thoughts to the mix...

Part of the challenge we face is that we need to think/design at a level people are not used to. Thinking about complex systems is hard, and if you allow the generalization, counter-intuitive. In the spirit of "A Pattern Language" we need to rediscover/create the rules of the system with the goal of reintegrating human and natural systems.

We need to move from being less and less bad, to being good. I don't want a smaller carbon footprint, but a great-big flower sprouting footprint. Just as a patch of earth is better with worms and ants, I believe that the earth can be that way too...better for our having lived.


Posted by: Daniel Smith on 2 Nov 09

This is a good start on what must become a much more substantive discussion, but even if we begin to address systemic change we will still not be dealing with the fundamental issue: the human population is too large for the earth to support. We can reinvent all we want, but ultimately we'll just move the goal posts and still run up again against the fact that without quite consciously moderating the human population, we're just postponing the inevitable. It's hard, it's controversial, it's not too P.C., but population is the real issue.

Posted by: Scott Walker on 2 Nov 09

Hi Alex,
There’s some real value in your last couple of articles.
The nub, and where I have found value, is that much of the response (personified by the Transition movement) to our current environmental imperative is manifesting in ways that are largely regressive, uninspiring and as such just not up to the challenge. I.e. Transition is grounded in a vision based approach (in my opinion) but because that vision is overwhelmingly about fixing cloths, growing foods and swapping seeds etc the new vision that is starting to manifest as an alternative to catastrophe can seem to be tantamount to a return to the 50’s or the dark ages. This is an important failure on two levels;
1. A vision with backward thrust falls short of being “visionary”, exciting, fun and engaging to the highly sensitized imaginations of the current human mind. Engagement is the most serous of issues. Not least the engagement of billions of people (including my wife) in/from the majority world that have been living absolute or relative poverty and dreaming and aspiring to the western dream. And our new replacement vision and aspiration is one of planting tomatoes and riding bikes. Not likely!! It hasn’t engaged many people that I know from the global south.
2. Lacking a visionary quality is very serious on a practical level too, as it fails to hit the sweat spot and the Achilles heal of change. It fails to capture the beauty and benefits of our current highly evolved systems and thinking. It’s too much of a pendulum swing, simply reacting and returning to a safe zone and building from what’s worked in the past. These regressive solutions should most certainly be the foundations as they are routed in a long evolutionary past but are in some cases they’re clucky and blunt and we have no time for inefficient solutions. They fail to maximise all that works; past, present and future, and put them together in ways that create new and more fulfilling existence.

I think it’s quite easy to articulate this flaw but I struggle when it comes to really articulating concise workable solutions or examples of what a visionary vision might look like. What does this mean in real terms? I struggle because so little of my time has been spent in this area of thought. Also the potential scope is vast and the solutions often subtle.

Within the mainstream psyche there’s predominantly four visions that take up our the majority of our collective future visions;
1. Catastrophe
2. Business as usual (IMO same as catastrophe but blind)
3. Green fix but business as usual (IMO catastrophe deferred a decade or two)
4. Transition type regressive vision (seen by many greens as our hope)

The Fourth vision is a relatively new thought pattern and we’re spending so much of the collective “green” psyche developing it, when in reality, we really need to step it up a gear and capture the collective creativity. Articulating the visionary vision, or perhaps the correct way round is providing a mechanism so that the people can articulate their vision and engaging people in the practical steps to deliver it, is perhaps the most important pursuits of our time.


Posted by: shane on 2 Nov 09

So, what's "the revolution"?

Posted by: amy pennington on 3 Nov 09

The toughest part with this kind of analysis is the immediate call for a Ten Easy Steps to the Revolution list. People are so used to being spoonfed what and how and when to change that the kind of creativity involved with this strikes them often as an injust imposition instead of a necessary and unavoidable corollary of the shift in thinking.

But everyone is involved in different parts of the overarching system that needs to change, and we all have different forms and kinds of leverage on those systems. CEOs have vastly different potentials to change the underlying systems (particularly of their corporations and sectors) than do, say, students. But students aren't powerless either. They can influence the ways decisions are made at their schools, residences, clubs, etc.

At any rate, I agree with you. It's a point I've been arguing for over a decade (and it doesn't make me very popular with the folks who just want to be told what to buy). People make their choices in teh context of a system that rewards destructive behaviour. Until that system changes, the behaviour will not change either in more than piecemeal fashion.

Posted by: Andrea on 3 Nov 09

I love the rant and agree. That is why I take the devil's advocate arguing against buying local... what a waste of time.

I have a plan. First, stop doing anything anyone ever told you to do to "save the earth" and take all the time you save cleaning plastic bags and gardening, and help build the movement. Every minute that Alex wastes gardening (assuming it is to save foodmiles, not cause he enjoys it) is time he could be organizing, researching, informing, etc. Such a waste of brilliance!

Two, stop doing any green preaching. When your friend throws away a can, don't worry about it. Never tell anyone what they "should" be doing. People hate to be told what to do... but most enjoy learning and being given the option to do the right thing.

Third, we have to sell this thing to the 'haves'. We need to convince them that their lives will be better. There is no sacrifice in a sustainable world.
You can drive SUV's.. as long as cars are the dominant transportation... but do you really like to drive? wouldn't you rather ride this cool tram or take an automated car? you could make even more money by working while driving to work? The sacrifice is an over populated country with no regulation... no open space, grid locked freeways, unbreathable air, dead oceans, etc

At the end of the day, those who are materialistic and driven by greed are empathetical simple to control: just convince them they can have more in a sustainable system. The problem is that us lefties are too moralistic to manipulate the materialistic drones. Time to leave the fantasies of saving everyone from themselves behind.

Fourth, we need to build a network of local, national and international organizations to facilitate and coordinate the needed changes. There need to be local organizations that create a vision for their communities of a sustainable economy and there needs to be a national/international/bio-region organization that 1) coordinates these visions and 2) provides research to the local organizations so they can build their visions with the best information.

But the problem and the challenge is that people cannot agree on much. Until those of us that think there is a problem can agree on a solution, we are never going to get those that think there is a problem to vote for change... because we still do not have a candidate, just a big ugly argument.

Posted by: Bill S on 3 Nov 09

One more thought...
One of my favorite taoist writings is about how living things, when attacked, will not only defend themselves, but will often attack the attacker. This is compared to inanimate things that can only respond with their structure... a rock can only take the pressure it's molecular structure can bear.

My guess is that 90% of the reason we have not addressed pressing environmental issues is because environmentalists have been snot nose brats. The message of "live simple" is basically equivalent to declaring war on most people in the country. You are telling them that you are going to take away the life that they know. I realize in the 70's there likely only seemed to be two options: back to the land or inevitable destruction. But this site alone should be enough to convince anyone that there is a third choice that balances modern society and the planet. When people feel attacked from the start and they feel that they have to concede their lifestyle if they agree with you, their powerful minds will find a way to 1) discredit your argument 2) attack you for threatening them. And their mind is far more skilled at self-preservation than you could ever be at persuasion.

So the new message should be : we have the technology and understanding to save the planet and have SUV's shopping malls and cheap food! The best part is that you can have these things guilt free, if we make the needed changes. If we are feeling adventurous, we could also make our lives far more rewarding than watching TV and being angry and stressed in traffic and endlessly buying junk.

Posted by: Bill S on 3 Nov 09

Andrea - I agree, but we have to organize our "leverage" pulling. That is the key. If there are CEO's that want to change, they need to organize to make sure that are not all pulling different levers. Same thing with local NGO's and national political organizations.
They key is find ways to get individuals involved in the organizations that will facilitate development of regional visions and coordinate the implementation. I want to add that I view this as an iterative process. Every year, a vision and plan would be written, but it constantly change as 1)new technology and understanding arise 2)the choices made by neighbors are better understood (for example, you may have been planning in going solar, but all of you neighbor cities are too, so wind seems to make more sense now for diversity in the larger region). It is really a running conversation with stopping points where the current vision becomes the goal until the end of the next year.

Posted by: Bill S on 3 Nov 09

Systems thinking doesn't thrive with either/or arguments. Rather it requires both/and thinking.

We need clear, compelling visions AND we need to ground such visions in accurate, objective, emotionally neutral assessments of reality. Doing so sets up a useful creative tension that both energizes and guides our actions. This "creating" approach is a higher-order system than "problem-solving" because it can embrace and transcend problems as aspects of current reality.

Thinking like this (and designing and implementing systems using this approach) helps us shift from a "yeah, but…" structure which cancels out energy, to a "yes, and…" structure which generates energy and prompts us to ask "how then should we proceed?"

Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 3 Nov 09

I hope to have something more substantial to contribute later, but that will have to wait until I'm not rushing out the door :)

For now, I just want to say this: Please take a hint from Avaaz and start highlighting the important. They've connected with a whole lot of people, and I'd say a good part of that can be chalked up to their effective use of bolding in all their communications. It affords equal opportunity to capture the whole gamut of readers, from the quasi-interested day-offers to the passionate on-the-runners, getting as much out of each interaction as possible. We need ears before to get action.

You've written something wonderful here Alex, but like you say: "people are lazy! they won't pay attention to anything!" We live in a distraction culture, and you're competing with hockey teams and lolcat memes; one-liner & webisodes. If you want this sort of thing to make it out of the choir and into the pews, you need to make it more accessible.

Of course I'm posting this up on Facebook, but I can easily imagine how daunting this will appear to those who might not initially be as interested...

But all that aside -- As someone who stuck with you to the end, you've definitely given me a bit to think about. Hopefully I'll be back to contribute later. Once I find some time, that is :)

Posted by: Patrick Connolly on 3 Nov 09

Yeah, fascinating. A fellow espoused the same view to me at a dinner party about six months ago and I lost my temper with him, wondering aloud why he bothered to wake up in the morning. I countered with intentional communities, local food and something about mothers being the great saviours of the universe. But I couldn't forget his words and wondered why they kept gnawing at me. When I read your post it all came rushing back in technicolor. It also reminded me of a quote I couldn't stomach or wasn't able to grasp for a long time: "Give everything away and follow me". Not to liken you to J or anything :) but what you suggest has a similar go/no go urgency - that environmentally we're going to hell in a handbasket - and that one either a) believes this to be true or b) believes this to be false. I don't see much room for a sorta/kinda middle ground.

So as I clean my house for the millionth time, pick up the plastic bits of my children's toys, study for midterms, bring the winter clothes up from the basement, do the volunteer work, check on the in-laws, prioritize the house repairs, get the snow tires on the van, rake up the leaves, clean the gutters, and get over a house full of the flu, I have trouble seeing how it is possible for me to affect change on a meaningful global scale without dispensing with virtually all the trappings of our modern culture and social system. I'm personally finding it hard to Save the World in my spare time.

I think J had it right - along with other spiritual teachers and mystics - that we need to profoundly shed much of what we hold to be true in order to move forward. Our old model is broke and we need a new one, quick-like.

So with middle-age firmly upon me and the precious days zinging by ever more-quickly, I tell my four young kids and easily-shockable husband that whatever fits in the yurt, goes in the yurt. I say this often enough so that the "House For Sale" sign on the front lawn will not come as a surprise nor will the mountains of goods on the sidewalk labelled "Free To A Good Home".

Shocking? Maybe. Terrifying? Definitely. But I just can't seem to visualize my role in the big picture while I'm blinded by the pursuit of The American Dream. Or exhausted from cleaning up after it.

Posted by: Andrea Cordonier on 3 Nov 09

Alex, thanks for a fine rant. I've got the same logic loops running endlessly in my brain, and its been boiling over lately in a volatile stew of hope, despair and frustration. Even we who are in the know about how dire our situation is don't seem to be capable of fully grokking it. We are all going about our daily lives as if this can continue indefinitely.

The sad truth is that we are completely enmeshed in destructive systems, and every day we all get up and flick the switch we put another nail in the coffin. Technology might save us, but its implementation is several years out and we're doing daily damage in the meantime. We are in an interim period where the old systems are beginning to collapse but the new ones haven't yet emerged. In this period I think the small things really do matter, perhaps not so much for their carbon impact as for their ability to catalyze a public discourse and create a desperately needed culture of change.

Unfortunately we can only go so far with change before we bump into the limits of the current systems. What needs to happen is that in addition to CFLs, etc, we all engage in self-organized system change from wherever we are. We need to begin the work of simultaneous deconstruction of the unsustainable aspects of the system and creation of what is sustainable. This is system change.

The difficulty is that we can't just reach out and change the system. We need to work through the gatekeepers, the people who officially and unofficially control small and large domains of the stocks, flows, and dynamics of big interconnected systems.

I'm not sure I fully believe in the "powers that be" as a conscious enemy that we need to fight (though I'm always fond of a good conspiracy theory). I think the biggest enemy is ignorance and a basic inability to cope with the complexity of the systems that we have created - only about 20% of the population can even cognize at the systems level. This makes our situation even more precarious - most public officials aren't thinking with the necessary level of complexity, and they are the ones holding the steering wheel. Therefore, those of us who can see what needs to happen must either run for office and/or engage with them at every level of the system to offer the workable, scalable solutions that will save money, save carbon and save something of the earth for the children of all species.

Crowdsourcing the system change requires that we all know what we are creating, and worldchanging does so much to help us visualize a sustainable world. Thank you. I'm starting up a crowdsourced behavior change game that transitions to engaging in system change as you work from the center of your sphere of influence outwards (the wedge pledge - stay tuned). There are so many amazing climate change initiatives underway - and this is where I find some hope.

One last comment, a pet peeve really, so please indulge me: I want everyone in this movement to stop talking about a sustainable future - we need a sustainable NOW, and we need it yesterday!

P.S. the revolution also needs to be hip, sexy and loud.

Posted by: Lisa Chacon on 3 Nov 09

Far too much of the debate about sustainability still orbits around ideas of smallness, slowness, simplicity, relocalization that often obscure the reality of our lives from us. Their main virtue is that they make incredibly complex systems that we cannot change alone seem susceptible to easy understanding and quick transformation through personal choice. In other words, they let us deceive ourselves in ways that are extremely comforting.

We need to be better than that. We need to be bigger than that. We need to understand that a bright green future will look like nothing that has ever come before, and will involve us changing the fabric of our lives, not just the ornament. It will involve needing to be more connected to global networks of people working towards change, more committed to seeking understanding and transparency in complexity, more engaged with systems that make us feel small -- because we are small, and the world is complex, and we can't do this alone.

There is nothing about smallness, slowness, simplicity and relocalization that seems easy or quick to me. Achieving it is a daunting effort and the prospects of doing it are not at all comforting. It is a deep systemic change and a complete reversal of current cultural directions; there is nothing ornamental about it. It's attraction is that it tries to avoid even more damage to the non-human systems on which humans depend. It tries to give them space to heal. If the bright green alternative is to actively engage in fixing the damage or "undoing catastrophe", I invite you once again to read E. O. Wilson's comments (last two paragraphs) on human capacity in such a complex world. If you want paradigmatic change, think about replacing human hubris with human humility -- admitting our creativity and engineering are completely inadequate for the task of "undoing catastrophe". Human capacity may astound us but it has yet to fashion anything remotely approximating an evolved ecosystem. We impose ourselves on the non-human world; we have forgotten how to integrate into it.

You seem to think that we are running out of time and we need to place our bets on solutions that "could work." I'm wondering how interconnecting a lot of thoughtful people (no sarcasm implied) to search for an unspecified solution satisfies that requirement better than the rescaling of our impacts on the planet.

Posted by: John Faust on 3 Nov 09

I agree with many things being said here and in the comments. Big changes need to be made and everyone needs to do more than switching bulbs. The problem is that those baby steps are easily actionable and make people feel good.

Someone brought up the hero's journey, and that the hero starts from a place that is weak and uncertain. I think all of us are there now. We have had the fear of global climate change properly instilled, and if we haven't, it probably means that the increasing talk is just annoying us and not convincing us further. The only things that could really fully convince everyone are the truly painful consequences of our unsustainable development: increased prices due to high energy costs that create better incentives for the alternatives, but thats a bad point to decide to change.

So those small tasks make people feel like they are contributing something, however small it may be. Something they KNOW they can do. Knowing that these items are comparatively useless plunges us back into despair. The key really seems to be how to make that real, larger change actionable for all people.

Perhaps this is a good goal for Worldchanging. You have this starting point as a great information source. But maybe it can also function as the proper outlet on these large scale action steps: "Want to put pressure on Washington, the G8, G20, new environmental standards, energy industry, or your local power suppliers? Here's how and here's the link to other people feeling the same." How do you take the passion of all these commenters and capitalize it into tangible action? How do we create a new environmental Space Race- a vision that soars with the excitement of possibility? I'm trained in design, and so I think about how ideas can actually be visualized and the power of story telling in conveying concepts. It could be incredibly useful in discussing where we could head, what it would look like, how it could feel. But everyone needs to be involved, and feel like they have a piece of the vision. We need large action steps that are possible and make us feel as good as these tiny do-able steps do. And to create large progress you need organization of many smaller but important actions. And maybe, just maybe, this site can be the snowflake that causes the avalanche...the social jump-off point in spurring real action. So instead of the movie ending with "here's what you can do everyday", Worldchanging ends posts with "Here's who you can contact, click here to work on this, connect with others in your area", and think about donating time to action rather than the 15 minutes it took to write this comment.

The writing is consistently inspiring. Start linking outlets for that inspiration and together we'll be making this change instead of just talking about it.

Posted by: Matt Anthony on 3 Nov 09

Thanks Alex. I'm a longtime reader, firsttime poster :) Very thought provoking - definitely on the table for our dinner conversation tonight.

Could you site the research about "There's hard evidence suggesting that most of the time, small steps do not actually motivate people to later take larger steps (most people adopt a small change or two and then feel they've done their part and stop)." This would be really useful for me in my work in enviro behaviour change.


Posted by: emily on 3 Nov 09

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." In saying that every small step is simply wrong and suggesting that the larger systems must be changed and changed quickly you're pretty much telling us to stop walking and pilot an airplane--or maybe even a rocket.

I agree time is against us and think we should be running very fast right now, but for every person embracing green/sustainability/environmentalism, there are probably hundreds who don't. It's those people that need to discover what it is they care about and learn that without our planet, what they care about won't continue to exist. It's systems thinking tied to emotion. And that's how you'll change attitudes and behavior to transform markets. Awaken the masses and feed them the message without scaring and belittling them and then you'll have a real movement getting things done.

Posted by: Curtis Fong on 3 Nov 09

Shocking? Maybe. Terrifying? Definitely. But I just can't seem to visualize my role in the big picture while I'm blinded by the pursuit of The American Dream. Or exhausted from cleaning up after it.

That, Andrea, is a pretty concise nailing of a lot of the problem we have here. It's hard to organise a systemic change when the system has you on a treadmill (You're welcome to come clean up our place while your at it ;-).

"A child was born just the other day...."

(Or maybe, 'Child of Vision'?)

Ahem, Curtis. Alex's problem with the small steps approach is that we tend to start with the first one and get distracted (see previous comment). He is *NOT* saying that you shouldn't bother with taking that first step, but just to try and remember to complete the other 2,499,999 (~1000 miles at 2 feet /step).

Awakening the masses... well, as Han Solo once said, that's the trick, isn't it?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 4 Nov 09

This is an important view but very nebulous at this stage and it also is missing coupling with the inward-out, ground-up approach. I don't see the revolution happening from the aspect that Steffen talks about it.
I totally agree with what he says here:
We have inherited a whole set of solutions by conventional wisdom, many of them surrounding lifestyle choices. Almost all of us believe that someone who buys local food, who drives a hybrid, who lives in a well-insulated house, who wears organic clothing and who religiously recycles and composts and avoids unnecessary purchases is living sustainably.
They are not. As we've explored a bunch of times in different ways here on Worldchanging, the parts of our lives that actually fall within our direct control are the tips of systemic icebergs, and often changing them does nothing to alter those systems: not individually, not in small groups, not even in larger lifestyle movements. If we're going to avoid catastrophe, we need to change those larger systems, and change them for everyone, and change them quickly.
But when he writes:
That, ultimately, is the biggest problem with the hand-made approach to sustainability: even when it works, it makes us passionate about small things in our lives, not engagement with the world. Visiting a neighbor's great backyard garden may well encourage me to want to grow my own; it doesn't encourage me to understand global agrobusiness, connect with food policy activists and do something to change the $2,000 in destructive agricultural subsidies the U.S. government pays with part of my taxes every year.

I have to ask: What world? How will simply understanding global agrobusiness help the world? Won't circumventing it be the best solution? I.e. growing a lot of your own food locally? Changing where and how you get basic resources does change the world. Indeed it may change it more than anything else. There is no evidence that this change is going to come from the top down and structurally, all odds are against that - that's why societies collapse perennially.

Posted by: Ben on 4 Nov 09

Interesting post, Alex. Many great thoughts and suggestions, but I would suggest you've constructed a false dichotomy between hand-made solutions and the organizing you are referring to - but then that's what a good rant often does. Plus, you've stimulated conversation, which is what a good blog post does.

For the past two years I've worked for a community organizing nonprofit, so I have experience with building a movement from the grassroots and working to influence change. One of the principles underlying the community organizing approach is that people are driven by their own self-interest. They get involved because they can see how it relates to their lives and how it will offer them an opportunity to improve things. Others have anticipated this in their comments above.

One of the things that we have found to be important in doing our work - which really comes down to building relationships - is establishing legitimacy. You have to walk the talk. And here is where I think your analysis becomes a false dichotomy. Certainly there is only so much personal energy and time to go around for devoting to ways to "save the world." We all have to pick and choose, and we can do one another a favor by supporting one another and encouraging action where it is most likely to be effective.

I think of Gandhi's famous (now cliched) quote, that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. What makes it ring true is two-fold: (1) We are most able to enact radical changes starting with ourselves. If we're unable to change ourselves, how can we possibly expect others to change? And (2) by changing ourselves, we give legitimacy to our calls for action and can demonstrate successful examples of the changes we want to enact. Further, we can offer support for anyone who is curious about changing their own lives and give guidance as they make those steps.

I think of another of Gandhi's sayings, about the Seven Deadly Sins. For the current discussion we might formulate our own (and I'll borrow your "hand-made" phrase):
- Hand-made changes without political engagement = self-indulgence and complicity in a destructive status quo
- Political engagement without hand-made changes = hypocrisy and illegitimacy

Reading through the previous comments, I hit upon the idea of conceptualizing our current push for a bright green future with the abolitionist efforts of old. And here's the point I'm making: If we are to recognize that our current environmentally destructive systems are a moral concern just as slavery is/was a moral concern, we ought to recognize two things: (1) it is not enough to not own slaves or to help freed slaves get on their feet, and (2) it makes absolutely no sense to be a slave owner and yet call for the end of slavery - no one will believe you.

So I agree with previous statements that we need both personal changes and systems-wide political engagement. I've seen small personal changes, such as participating in a community garden, act as stepping stones to broader engagement in the food system and agricultural policy. It's often vital to have someone at hand who can challenge people to think along these lines (the community organizer).

Alex, in your most recent comment you replied to the statement, "A collective good is often improved by individual choices that become contagious." You said, "Sometimes, but note how rarely significant changes have gone viral." I am inclined to disagree. Though arguably not "collective goods," significant changes to our way of living have come quite regularly throughout recent history: the automobile, the internet, the use of greenbacks, the use of credit, even an understanding that washing one's hands will limit disease. All of these had to be adopted over time, growing in popularity and gaining widespread acceptance perhaps, in part, because of the human tendency to "keep up with the Jonses." I think it does depend on one's definition of "gone viral," but then you're not calling for a viral solution either, Alex. You're calling for coordinated widespread efforts.

The misconception about great social movements, such as the civil rights movement, is that they were spontaneous uprisings. On the contrary, it took years - decades even - of hard, tedious organizing to build relationships, raise awareness, win small victories, and develop the mass power base to change the system. I think we need to recognize that we can certainly draw on past experiences and that we all have a part to play in creating the change we want to see in the world - together.

Posted by: Shaun Daniel on 4 Nov 09

Thanks Alex, I too have been ranting along these lines recently.

The masses will not cause a revolution because they can't do it! Even if everyone becomes angelic enthusiasts we're still nowhere. I have a copy on my bookshelf of the 1970 book: 'The Consumer's Guide to the Protection of the Environment' by Jonathan Holliman -- all the same stuff on packaging, saving water, energy, recycling , composting etc that the movement has been espousing so uselessly for 40 years ...

(@Shaun Daniel: The slavery abolition parallel is interesting, I was reading about William Wilberforce just last week as I discovered he had a summer house less than a mile from where I live. It took him 26 years and it absolutely shows that it's not enough to not own slaves. But there is no sustainability equivalent of 'not owning slaves' as Alex's point about driving a hybrid etc. not being sustainable made clear. Being 'good' is complicated to assess and I would argue not even possible right now. )

What is needed is the focused and coordinated effort of a relatively small number of people (maybe a million globally) to accelerate the uptake of key sustainable industrial processes and the replacement of non-sustainable ones.

Let's start to define the characteristics of these people of the revolution:

* They believe that 100% sustainable is possible (amazing how few environmentalists truly believe this)

* They don't do this as amateurs in their spare time; revolution is full time job
(@Andrea Cordonier: love your comment)

* They only work on projects that can be 100% sustainable

* Key industries to be focused on:
- Renewable electricity, heat, liquid and gaseous fuels
- Nanocyling / total recycling
- Super-sustainable agriculture (whatever, it needs a new word and to be better)
- 20% globally wild areas with total human exclusion and rewilding

* It doesn't matter what they do at home or what car they drive or clothes they buy, none of that makes a difference

* Areas NOT focused on
- Energy & Materials Efficiency (Using less bad stuff is still bad)
- Fair Trade (Being nice to each other won't save the world)
- Fossil Carbon Reduction (It's all going to get burnt eventually anyway)
- Mass Communication / Behaviour Modfication (Even if everyone becomes angelic enthusiasts we're still nowhere)

I am looking for a way to stimulate these people, probably using a manifesto and rule-based biological organisation design (like I did with the Green Drinks Code now in over 600 cities worldwide).

Alex, do you want to lead this revolution or at least focus it a bit to get it to the next level? I'm in...


Edwin Datschefski

Posted by: Edwin Datschefski on 5 Nov 09

so the revolution will be top down, impersonal and unkind? Why do we bother then? Clearly most of us with the time and technology to post here aren't really at risk - we'll be dead and gone (and materially comfortable all the while) before the stuff hits the fan. Clearly wanting change means valuing something beyond ourselves in the here and now. As William Mcdonough put it: "How can we love all of the children of all species for all time?" if that's not "being nice" I don't know what is.

Posted by: aj on 5 Nov 09

This article struck a real chord with me - particularly the idea that it is a mistaken belief that 'every small step is a good thing'.

In the UK, eco-friendly living is packaged up as business as usual in an eco-friendly way: off-set those flights and purchase energy efficient white goods – it is rarely about a fundamental shift in the way we live.

The problem the human race faces is huge and one of the biggest barriers to real change is our absolute belief in the power of consumerism. Consumerism is our right and what we (almost) all feel we should be striving for: we have faith in it, it will sustain us. We even believe this when we consume more and feel worse as a result.

I am not a religious person but there must be more to life than consumerism.

The danger is there - we can try to avoid it and mitigate against it but this is not the whole picture. There must be something else, something more spiritual in our lives, something along the lines of principals and caring and being connected with others and with nature and yes, this is expressed through art and culture as well as politics and strategy.

Posted by: Liz Hillary on 6 Nov 09

Wow, I step away a couple days, and a ton of perceptive, thoughful comments are waiting for me when I get back!

I'm short on time this afternoon, but I'd like to especially thank Andrea and Edwin for their posts, both of which have gotten me thinking.

Emily -- it's the WWF study we've linked to Google "problem with big green"

Thanks all, have a great weekend.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 6 Nov 09

Another interesting follow-up to the Transition Towns piece.

Shaun said:
"- Hand-made changes without political engagement = self-indulgence and complicity in a destructive status quo
- Political engagement without hand-made changes = hypocrisy and illegitimacy"

then Edwin follows in his discussion of the "people in the [100% sustainable] revolution":
"It doesn't matter what they do at home or what car they drive or clothes they buy, none of that makes a difference."

I think there is plenty of middle ground between these positions. Yes, you can't be all things sustainable to all people, but doing the small things right where possible can amplify and add legitimicy to big causes.

Those of us trying to get to a sustainable system all come at the issue with different sets of constraints, skills, opportunities and talents - and start from a unique place within the unsustainable system we have now.

E.g. for someone who is a gun gardener, owns a suburban home, has kids to raise, and has good links into their local community, then maybe renovating their house using passive solar design, biking instead of driving, building up a local community gardening system & recycling network is the best contribution they can make, even if by itself it's not "100% sustainable". As I see it that stuff takes away power & momentum from the current industrial unsustainable way of doing things, making it easier to change systems for the better.

My personal approach: make planning for systemic change my "day job" (as Edwin recommends), but make the community/local things a "hobby", and socially support people working at that level where possible.

Posted by: Patrick from Adelaide, AU on 7 Nov 09

@Edwin Datschefski

People have been "espousing" the need to accelerate "key sustainable industrial processes" for 40 years too.

While both agree moving these processes forward is essential. We are not in agreement that personal action such as composting and saving energy is useless.

You mention renewables as being one of your chosen industrial focuses. The Centre for Alternative Technology wrote they're first Alternative Energy Strategy in 1977. They wrote they're updated version in 2007. Which one do you think had more traction??
The fact the industrial processes that you so narrowly focus on are starting to have traction is largely down to the stark nature of the current science over the science 40 years ago and the trillions of very small positive acts to make individuals lives more sustainable completed by ordinary people which provide markets for large businesses and mandates for positive political action. I'm not sure how you can dismiss this growing critical mass of people taking action as useless? Large systemic change is dependent upon it.


Posted by: shane on 7 Nov 09

@Patrick from Adelaide

I agree that one can't be all things to all people. Indeed there is plenty of middle ground, which is what I would argue for. I was trying to get at that in my earlier comment by pointing out the problems with going to one or the other extremes. It does no good to either be a saintly hermit nor a careless revolutionary. I think it's important that we take what steps we can individually take AND engage with others to change the greater systems that are at work and influence the way our communities function and even the way we live as individuals. I think Alex is emphasizing this latter point - I might argue a little to the extreme. But both realms of engagement (personal and political) I see as necessary and good.

@Edwin Datschefski

I agree that "good" is difficult to assess and I don't want to get too far down the philosophical rabbit hole of debating the nature of the good, but I think we still might allow that certain actions are laudable in a moral or ethical sense even in a world that is, as a whole, living unsustainably. Kantian ethics would suggest as good, or morally correct, one who restricts one's lifestyle to a truly sustainable form able to be replicated for every human on earth. I'm not really a Kantian, but (without formulating a precise definition) I see as morally good any action taken by one with the intention to improve things for all. And then I see as practically good a result of such action that is of benefit to all (e.g. true progress towards sustainability). The correlation with the abolition movement/slavery is the sentiment expressed by such thinkers as Dante (and echoed by MLK, Gandhia and others): "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintained their neutrality." (Hence, the analogy that it's not enough just to not own slaves, nor is it enough to call for an end to slavery without acting to stop your involvement in it.)

I think we're all capable of more than we think we are. (I think I'm capable of doing more than I currently am, which is why I keep pushing myself to gradually do more and more.) I tend to be forgiving and patient with people as they find their way into taking small actions, but I also keep nudging them towards bigger steps as they develop the self-confidence and leadership skills that will allow them to engage in the larger systemic work.

Cheers to you, Patrick and Edwin! Glad we can engage like this.

Posted by: Shaun Daniel on 7 Nov 09

Something occurred to me about this small steps thing (washing the dishes with 'eco-friendly' detergent, as it happens... yes I do sometimes wash the dishes manually. I also hang out the washing... something I am agog to discover is a dying art in the States!)

Anyway, I'm getting off course here. Understandable since my thought is a bit underformed and could be totally whacky. Still, I thought I'd toss it in to get whacked about.

The level of awareness of ecological issues can be gauged from the number of products being marketed as 'green'. Precisely *what* shade of green is initially less important than realising that promotions industry thinks that being green is a marketable commodity.

So, how can they be persuaded that being *bright* (or dark or robust or whatever) green is an even more marketable commodity?

This leads to wondering what it means to be able to market accountability and transparency as good and demonstrable practices, since the cynical application of smoke and mirrors are a large part of 'greenwashing' and keeping people light green without giving further thought to the issues.

That's about as far I've got with it.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 8 Nov 09

Riding to work this morning, I saw a tram with an advert. for some bottled fruit juice which proclaimed that 'we've listened to you to create a better product!'

OK, so that suggests that the promotions folk know that accountability is a marketable commodity. Or rather, the *perception* of accountability is! So how do we know they've listened, and is that knowledge a marketable commodity?

I suppose this vague train of thought boils down to whether transparency and openness can be incorporated into marketing strategies that promote truly bright green product/strategies.

'nuff said.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 8 Nov 09

Hi Alex,

I sat next to you at the Better by Design dinner in NZ last year and enjoyed chatting with your younger brother and listening to your talk.

As a writer getting stuck in the 'Guide to...' loop I concur wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed here. I sometimes feel that I am drifting into Consumer journalism where I am reassuring people that changing their light bulbs will change the world, while the real world fires up the nuclear reactors...

I am also disconcerted by the unbalance between the number of resources for 'online activism' contrasted with the actual activism which takes place. (I include myself here.) I think we could spend less time telling each other what we know already and more time really working on stuff away from the screens.

And here I am, saying that on screen, about to write some more...

I have been scratching my head trying to find a way out of this which doesn't involve voluntary poverty and vilification for me and my family. Any ideas?

Posted by: Andy Kenworthy on 23 Nov 09

Hand-made (being willing to take individual action, to notice you are alive as a human being who only ever exists locally) and collectively-made (being willing to engage in changing the structures that drive the destruction, that destroy and appropriate place-making processes) are aspects of the same movement: breathing in, breathing out (whether that breath is in the form of a rant or a whisper!)

Posted by: Justin Kenrick on 8 Jan 10

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