Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why I Bother

It seems like every few days a post crops up on the blogosphere questioning whether personal action makes a difference to the environmental movement. Now, I'll admit that when I first decided I wasn't going to buy stuff, I didn't have a very clear idea of what I was trying to achieve. But, I figured, why not dive in and figure out everything else later? And you know, that worked for me. But it's been several months now, and I do feel that the question, "Why do you bother?" is an important one to address. So, let's get down to it.

Question: Can my individual actions to lighten my carbon footprint really have an impact (on a global scale)?

Short answer: No.

The long answer is also no, but that doesn't mean individual action doesn't matter.

Individual action doesn't happen in a vacuum. Individual action leads to collective action. And collective action in turn leads to change in public policy.

Think about every great social movement in the history of this country. Abolition. Women's suffrage. Temperance. (Okay, that one was not so great.) Civil Rights. Gay rights. All of these movements share a common history: that is they grew out of individual action. Before the Emancipation Proclamation there was Harriet Tubman. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Public policy has always FOLLOWED social change, not preceded it.

So yes, it was the 13th amendment that ended slavery. But there never would have been a 13th amendment if it weren't for individuals like Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the members of countless sewing and quilting circles.

Rosa Parks. Harriet Tubman. Sewing circles. Hmmm, am I insinuating something here? Isn't it ironic that the same week that some of the leading environmental policy makers in America engaged in a flame war on each others' blogs, a woman who is known to most of her readers as "Crunchy Chicken," was getting it done? This is not to denigrate the work of Joe Romm, Michael Shellenberger or Ted Nordhaus, all of whom I greatly respect. But I bring it up more to illustrate that old adage, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Women have historically been the backbone of social movements. Just as Abolition stemmed from sewing circles, so too does the environmental movement stem from book clubs, food buying clubs, and swap-o-rama-ramas.

Right now I'm actually reading Shellenberger and Nordhaus's book "Break Through," which is a fantastic must-read for anyone interested in the environmental movement. In it, they lament the fact that environmentalists do not know how to organize like churches. Well, no disrespect to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, but we're building our church, thank you very much. We've got groups committed to 10% carbon emissions, and others committed to victory gardens. We've got 40 people cutting clutter, 25 people giving to others, and over 200 people not buying a dang thing! And just like a church, our challenges and virtual eco-groups offer participants support and fulfillment.

So, no. Individual actions by themselves don't mean much. We cannot expect to drastically cut emissions without changes in policy. But the policy change will never happen without social change happening first. And social change begins at home.

Individual action doesn't matter? Tell that to Rosa Parks.

13 comments:

CAE said...

Right on! I'm gonna bookmark this and send it to the next person who uses that argument.

Cindy said...

Individual actions having no impact has been used time again in just about every movement in the US and in the rest of the world. Remember the Chinese student who stood in front a tank in Tianmen Square? Tell him that he did not matter. Wangari Maathai, who planted the first tree and started the Green Belt movement. Tell her that she did not matter. The examples are countless. I totally with you Arduous, the point is that collectively individuals matter

Student Doctor Green said...

Dizz-am! Another totally inspirational post. I feel all pumped just after reading it.

Green Bean said...

You got it! Should we all roll over as our individual actions don't amount to diddly? That argument annoys the crap out of me every time I hear it. We bother because it is the right thing to do, because individual action has been the foundation for every great change in history. A movement, and make no mistake, there is a movement afoot, is comprised of individual action. *Pumping my green fist in the air right now.*

Cindy said...

That's for pointing to the flame war. Geesh! Can't we just all agree that with the vast calamity in front of us, we need individual actions, technological breakthroughs and smart government policies? Why do they, intelligent folks, hold their one dimensional view and waste energy on unproductive conversations? Sigh. I do want to read Michael Shellenberger or Ted Nordhauss. Judging from the interviews I have heard, I don't think I will agree with them on quite a few things. I've been in the technology field for 15 years, if you count schooling, so I am no stranger to technical innovations. But at the end of the day, technologies are still tools to be used for doing the right things.

Burbanmom said...

Rock on, girlfriend! Your post is spot-f'ing-on! One person can make a difference -- and it's usually by inspiring others to take action!

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Simply excellent post! And inspiring too, I must say. I really liked the bit about the church. One more point may be made as well, even if my actions AREN'T 'effective' I still have to make moral, ethical choices. My choice not to eat meat may not stop the cruelty of factory farming and slaughterhouses but do I want to participate in that muck? Do I want to contribute to the destruction of our air and water? No, I choose not to. Having made such a choice, the next logical step is to seek out some collective action.
So, good job Ardy!

Beany said...

About a year ago I was whining on a forum about this exact topic. That my individual actions seemed really pointless and idiotic when all I wanted was to everyone on the damn planet to live a life without using so much freakin' oil (yes, sometimes I feel like Marky Mark in I Heart the Huckabees: "Its the petroleum people!!").

People commiserated, and offered suggestions...primarily book suggestions. Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken was one of those books recommended to me, that I strongly recommend. Its describes the power of these teeny groups scattered throughout the planet that are making an impact. It was so incredibly inspiring to read about all the various causes that got people to band together. Its like the underground economy or a barter system...hard to quantify its strength because of its very nature and the way that the bigwigs account for things. And I love anything subversive. Even though many of these groups aren't subversive. But now I'm just rambling...

I've added Break Through to my reading list. Sounds like a great book.

maryann said...

Bravo! I've always answered the question with " I can't change the world but I CAN change my impact on it", and if I can influence anyone else along way through my actions, well, all the better.

ScienceMama said...

What a fantastic post!

And for the record, your "individual actions" inspire a whole lot of other individuals to act...um, individually.

Going Crunchy said...

Rock on! I raise my veggie juice to you in toast.

Grad Green said...

Inspiring post. I agree :)

I also agree with sciencemama about how our individual actions influence others. A year ago, almost everyone in my department got coffee in a disposable cup. Now, that number is WAAAAAYYYY down. One person was an example (it wasn't me), then two.... then a bunch. yes, it's a small change, but all these small changes add up.

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