In my last column, I pointed out the divide between two different ways of changing our world: using our personal actions, and changing the guiding structures of our society.
I’d like to emphasize that while I framed my column around the environmental sustainability of our civilization, the point I made applies to basically any facet of social change. In almost all areas of our society, which are screwed up (from the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities to the evisceration of the U.S. Post Office), the ultimate solution can’t be reached unless we make the jump from personal to collective effort. Personal effort won’t change the systems that create injustice, but collective effort can.
There are two primary reasons why I made this distinction in my last column. Firstly, because we often miss the mark. We encourage individual action in a society where the problem of what we do won’t be solved by encouraging ourselves to act differently, but by changing the systems that dictate our behavior. The societal systems that influence our behavior are the root problem. No one should have to invest time and effort to be environmental. It should come naturally due to the structure of the world around us.
(Of course, in no way am I saying that our personal actions are irrelevant. They’re beautiful gestures, which re-connect ourselves with what we care about, and make a difference bit by bit. We just can’t let the larger nature of our problem get away from us. That involves, of course, collective action, which I’ll get to in a moment.)
The second reason I emphasized the smaller relative impact of our personal actions was this: so that we can relax a little. There’s no need to feel guilty for not “doing enough” for our complicity in the unsustainable nature of our society. That’s simply the world we were born into. When we get frustrated or hung up on this problem, it just takes energy away from taking care of ourselves emotionally. Without taking care of ourselves first, we won’t have clarity, compassion and resolve. And those are the things we will need in order to build the movement that will truly turn things around.
My mother once said something brilliant. She said that perhaps there are two kinds of creative people: the creative leaders who have a vision for society, and the “creative masses” who rise up and support that vision.
It struck me as a very profound comment. Our solutions to the looming cloud of environmental catastrophe that’s before us will require both kinds of people. (I have not written persuasively on the nature of climate change, but I’m assuming my reader is familiar with exactly how devastating it promises to be. If you are not, or if you are skeptical, I urge you to do further research… What we face is no less than a threat to our civilization.) There will be those at the forefront whose genius will light the way forward — the likes of Martin Luther King, of Mohandas Gandhi. And there will be the “creative masses” who rally behind them and propel the whole thing forward.
As one friend of mine said to me, “give me a shovel, and I’ll start digging!” Our problem at present is not only that we don’t have enough collective motivation, it’s also a lack of shovels. For the average person, there’s no clear way forward. Likely, one will not appear until climate catastrophes increase to the point where the issue is is forced into our collective awareness. But if we know what we’re waiting for, it’ll be all the easier to recognize it when it comes. And hopefully, all of us who wish for change will be able to participate in that movement.