I got an email recently which asked the question, “If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?”
I know the standard answer: “Be the change.”
This motto — shorthand for Gandhi’s instruction that “We must be the change we wish to see in the world” — has become ubiquitous. And while a sensible person will appreciate the essential wisdom behind Gandhi’s words, in the context of sustainability, this shorthand has become associated as well with another idea: that the being the change is a lifestyle choice.
In this context, “Be the change” in fact usually means “Buy the change.” It means living a standard consumerist lifestyle, but varying the products one consumes to include “green” clothes, cars and furniture, or giving up certain consumer choices, by (for instance) flying less or eating less meat.
Here we crash headlong into one of the most painful, difficult and confusing realities of life today: varying our lifestyles will not create the kind of change the world needs to see. Ensnared in huge systems whose major by-product is destruction, it is nearly impossible — if we’re looking at the problem with clear eyes — to truly be the change.
It is essentially impossible for an average person with an average income to live an average North American lifestyle sustainably. It is only somewhat less difficult for an average European. Personal sustainability certainly can’t be achieved simply by shopping at a different set of stores.
But that’s not the half of it. The very idea that changing our own lives into models of sustainability will transform the world is wrongheaded — in part because it is almost impossible to do without great wealth or great sacrifice, in part because even when we do it, it encourages us to believe that problems which demand systemic solutions can be fixed by personal virtue.
At its worst, making saving the world a personal responsibility drives green posturing that’s both meaningless and annoying. But even at it’s best — even when we focus on taking the personal actions that are both actually within our power and at least somewhat effective at reducing our own impact — it is woefully insufficient.
As Bill Rees (the inventor of the ecological footprint measurement) says, “We’re all on the same ship and what we do in our individual cabins is of almost no consequence in terms of the direction the ship is going.”
The privatization of responsibility for the crises we face is entirely understandable. Making planet-saving a consumer choice helps sell products. Making it a lifestyle choice mutes political pressure for change. Making it an individual responsibility helps deflect attention away from the massive impact, ethical bankruptcy and extreme profitability of the unsustainable production, transportation, energy, food and construction systems upon which we depend and over which we currently have essentially no direct control.
Why do good people keep advocating lifestyle change? Well, the hope is that small steps will lead to a big change of heart: that a tipping point will occur when the crucial can falls into the critical recycling bin, and people all around the world will awaken to the sustainability imperative, and then that, in some vague-but-direly-hoped-for way, this awakening will change everything and all will be well (and everyone gets a pony!). I think of this theory as betting the farm on the arrival of a Mythological Universal Conversion Event.
Here’s the biggest problem with this theory of social change: it’s stupid, and we’ve been at it for decades and it hasn’t worked. Things are demonstrably worse than they were when we began advocating recycling and such, and they’re getting much worse far faster than any lifestyle choices can make them better. In the absence of an unlikely change in the nature of humanity, buying bamboo shirts or sustainable furniture is like spitting at a forest fire.
Edward Abbey wrote that “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” And almost every day we ask those around us engage in the ruination of their souls. We tell them the truth — that an ecological collapse is on its way, and that avoiding it demands widespread transformation — and then we suggest that they take some small steps whose meaninglessness in the face of massive crisis is self-evident. We ask them to care about everything, and do almost nothing.
We ought instead to ask from them, and demand from ourselves, action commensurate to the crisis, which is to say heroic action. The world has never more needed a generation of heroes, and, in the absence of a better generation, we’d better step up and fight like hell for the future we want.
In dreams begin responsibility, as the man said. I think that vision places on us a burden, that to be able to see the gap between the world as it is and the world as it must become is to be tasked with trying to imagine ways of bridging that gap; having imagined them, we are tasked with designing, building and replicating those bridges.
We don’t need more people living marginally greener lifestyles. We need thousands of people, millions of people, swarming out of their lifestyles and leading worldchanging lives. It is time to live as though the day has come, because it has: tomorrow is too late. One planet, three decades
Put another way: Don’t just be the change, mass-produce it. We need, through brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory and universal characteristic of our society, not an ethical choice. We need to remake the systems in which live. We need to redesign civilization. We need to replace the old, ecologically catastrophic economy with a new, bright green one.
Anything less is failure.
This piece was first posted on Worldchanging, in 2007.