Monday, November 2, 2009

Yes, This Is Important

I've been thinking a lot about Melinda's recent posts about environmental social change. Read her thoughts here about how to get people to change their lifestyles, participating in your community, and how doing it alone is not enough. It's a great series of posts and it asks a lot of important questions. Why is social change important? How do we affect change? How do you build a social movement? These are questions I have been pondering myself for the past two years.

There are a lot of people critical of individual action in the name of the environment. It is easy to poke holes, to label people as hypocrites. It is easy to point out that the changes we all make are microscopic drops in oceanic buckets. But none of those critics ever have a better solution. Almost everytime I go to a lecture on climate change, without fail, someone in the audience will ask what they can do about the crisis we face. And almost always, the answer given is, "Well, the truth is there isn't much you can do aside from vote."

How is that helpful?

I remember many years ago when I saw "An Inconvenient Truth." I still remember the combination of fear and helplessness that washed over me. The world as I knew it was coming to an end, and there was nothing I could do about aside from changing a few lightbulbs or considering a Prius. After I saw that movie, I immediately went online and bought a Terrapass. Then I continued to do nothing. For about a year. Because well, there was nothing I could do anyway!

And then one day everything clicked. I realized there was something I *could* do. So, I attempted to do it all. I stopped shopping, I started air drying, I even made my own jam and butter and started taking public transit in Los Angeles of all places. And then I moved to London in order to attain a better grasp of environmental policy issues.

Almost every seasoned environmental social activist knows that none of the changes we make are enough or anywhere near enough. But we also believe that our work creates a ripple effect. It is hard to determine the exact results of social action, especially one as amorphous as the environmental social movement. But it seems to me increasingly clear that the world is growing more environmentally aware. And part of that is due in part to a growing band of environmentalists who are challenging conventional rules on air-drying laundry, increasingly patronizing farmers markets, as well as advocating for a global deal on climate change in Copenhagen. Individual action at home begets slightly more public action which begets large scale activism for international change.

Do we need a global deal on climate change? Yes. Do we need more government investment in renewable energy? Yes. Do we need higher efficiency standards? Yes.

But we need social change to get those things. We need social change to help us maneuver to a new era of renewable energy.

In the movie Who Killed the Electric Car, one of the culprits cited is the American people who were not ready for the electric car. As I drove around the city of LA, I would be haunted by this failure. I'd drop by the library where the only empty parking spot was that reserved for electric cars. I'd drive by my coffee shop and see another empty parking spot labelled "electric vehicle only." The infrastructure was there, but we had not been able to change people's behavior. Of course there were many other reasons for the failure of the electric car, but I believe that this example demonstrates the need for a social movement. We cannot transition to a new era of renewable energy without changing people's behavior.

And that's why this social movement is important. In the end it's not about the plastic bags saved or the reusable coffee mugs used though those are good things to do. It's about the large scale awareness that is gradually being generated. That's why I continue to fight and work to grow this movement.

Yes, this is important.