The revolution will come through policy … which is not something you hear often. Usually the message you hear is that you need to change your personal actions to help the world. Recycle more (paper is our largest personal waste output), clean your plate so that you’re not wasting food (approximately one-third of all food in the world is thrown away!), drive an efficient car or, if you really want to make a difference, ride your bicycle.
These are the things we’re told we need to do if we’re going to start shifting towards a strong, sustainable civilization.
I would argue that that’s not true.
Because for every person in the metro areas who starts riding their bicycle, there are millions of Americans who will continue using their car. That’s because our traffic systems make it both safer and easier to do so.
For every plate of food we scrape clean, the United State’s agricultural system will continue to be supported by subsidies that encourage the use of land to feed livestock instead of feeding people directly.
The paper which we divert into the recycling bin pales in comparison to the industrial waste that is created in order to sustain our lifestyle, in one of the richest countries on Earth.
It is these broader policies that ultimately determine our environmental impact.
Policy — at government, corporate and societal levels — is what shapes and creates the environment we are born into, therefore has ultimate influence over our impact as individuals.
It’s easy to give out-sized importance to our individual actions.
After all, this is where we see our impact most clearly. You get to see the big stack of paper that is going to become more paper instead of filling up a landfill.
You get the satisfaction of seeing your empty plate, knowing that you only took what you needed.
You get the satisfaction of watching your garden grow and eating vegetables from the local co-op.
What you don’t see is the larger, invisible impact of your life. It occurs behind the scenes, so it’s harder to be aware of it.
As Annie Leonard notes in her video, “The Story of Stuff,” for every garbage can you put out on the street, 70 garbage cans of waste were produced to make all of the things you just threw out! Huge amounts of carbon are released when our streets are paved, when our homes are built, and when the products that fuel our lives are made. But none of that goes through a handy meter in our backyard.
Our largest impacts are not only invisible to us, we also share them collectively with the rest of society, which makes them doubly hard to tackle.
Our efforts will ultimately fail if we don’t cross the invisible wall that separates us from the industries that undercut all the personal choices we will ever make on this Earth. And the only way to influence those industries, and the policies that guide them, is through our individual voices.
Through political action, campaigning and social movement.
Our problem now is this: we don’t know what action looks like.
We don’t know how to build a social movement.
That requires working with other people, which is difficult.
How can we ever raise our voices loud enough to cut the subsidies to unsustainable farm giants, to build a national commuter rail infrastructure that would forever change our nation for the better?
I don’t claim to know all the answers, but our first step is recognizing the nature of our challenge. Once we’ve done that, we can begin to rise to that challenge.
To introduce myself, and my column: My name is Leland. My goal is to confront what Henry David Thoreau pointed out when he said that “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
My effort is always to strike at the root. The roots of the issues we face are often hidden. And until we find them, we aren’t able to work toward resolution — whether we’re trying to create a sustainable civilization, fight societal justice or move forward in our personal lives.
Let’s work toward that together.