On the insufficiency of lifestyle changes

That, ultimately, is the biggest problem with the hand-made approach to sustainability: even when it works, it makes us passionate about small things in our lives, not engagement with the world. Visiting a neighbor’s great backyard garden may well encourage me to want to grow my own; it doesn’t encourage me to understand global agrobusiness, connect with food policy activists and do something to change the $2,000 in destructive agricultural subsidies the U.S. government pays with part of my taxes every year. The hand-made can be beautiful. It can be deeply personally meaningful. I’d like a world where the hand-made abounds. But the hand-made is not The Revolution.

Excerpt from an editorial from Alex Steffen:

“Given how far we need to go, how quickly (I think we need — for reasons I’ll explain in another piece — about a 95% reduction in our impacts in the next two decades), we can’t waste time on what doesn’t work. We’re being forced, I think, to look at our solutions with a colder eye and clearer judgment. What works? What scales? What has the best political chances of happening? What can make money or creative infectious behavioral change or in some other way self-replicate? What solutions, in short, could work?

Everything else — all the solutions that don’t make that cut — are at best distractions, and in our current situation, where we’re fighting in the public debate for mindshare for real change (and change-stalling propaganda surrounds us), even distractions are not incidental. The idea that every small step is a good thing is simply wrong.

We have inherited a whole set of solutions by conventional wisdom, many of them surrounding lifestyle choices. Almost all of us believe that someone who buys local food, who drives a hybrid, who lives in a well-insulated house, who wears organic clothing and who religiously recycles and composts and avoids unnecessary purchases is living sustainably.

They are not. As we’ve explored a bunch of times in different ways here on Worldchanging, the parts of our lives that actually fall within our direct control are the tips of systemic icebergs, and often changing them does nothing to alter those systems: not individually, not in small groups, not even in larger lifestyle movements. If we’re going to avoid catastrophe, we need to change those larger systems, and change them for everyone, and change them quickly.

It’s quite clear that some of the “solutions” we embrace don’t actually motivate people to change at all. There’s hard evidence suggesting that most of the time, small steps do not actually motivate people to later take larger steps (most people adopt a small change or two and then feel they’ve done their part and stop).

Other times, we ask people to pay attention to the wrong things. Though the efforts some contrarians’ make to discredit local food verge on the absurd, the fact remains that food miles are not the most important measurement of food system sustainability. Perhaps more importantly, some observers’ suggest that local food often serves as a substitute for systemic engagement in movements to change agricultural systems at the largest levels, and I think there;s truth there. Certainly, many of us have a tendency to engage in iconic consumption, without really examining the entirety of our impact and whether our time and money might best be spent trying to effect change in some other way.

That’s not to say that its wrong to garden or recycle or buy CFLs. It’s not. It’s never wrong to try to live a life that’s internally consonant with the change we want to see in the world. Most of those life choices also make us healthier, happier and better off in the long run. So no harm in doing them (disclosure: I garden, recycle and use CFLs). Some personal choices, like forgoing beef and living without a car, not only create some measurable impact, they’re also public enough to signal your beliefs. But we still shouldn’t mistake these things for creating sustainable systems. Until we have systems that reduce the numbers of cows and cars we all use, we’re not making any real progress at all.

We can no longer afford to mistake the symbolic for the effective, or put our hopes in the mystical idea that if enough of us embrace small steps, our values will ripple mysteriously out through the culture and utterly transform it. We’ve been saying that for more than 40 years, it hasn’t happened and we need to stop lying to ourselves that it will. Live the life that fits your values, but don’t mistake that for changing the world.

Far too much of the debate about sustainability still orbits around ideas of smallness, slowness, simplicity, relocalization that often obscure the reality of our lives from us. Their main virtue is that they make incredibly complex systems that we cannot change alone seem susceptible to easy understanding and quick transformation through personal choice. In other words, they let us deceive ourselves in ways that are extremely comforting.

We need to be better than that. We need to be bigger than that. We need to understand that a bright green future will look like nothing that has ever come before, and will involve us changing the fabric of our lives, not just the ornament. It will involve needing to be more connected to global networks of people working towards change, more committed to seeking understanding and transparency in complexity, more engaged with systems that make us feel small — because we are small, and the world is complex, and we can’t do this alone.

We’re redesigning our civilization. We need to be people who are tackling the most important systems around us, employing tools that can change them quickly at scale. We need to get comfortable talking policy, working in parallel collaborations, thinking in systems, understanding infrastructures and markets and flows, and using money to power comprehensive transformations.

The opposite of democracy is depoliticization. The idea that “regular” people can’t do this is insultingly elitist, psychologically isolating and inherently depoliticizing. Of course we can. Even those of us who lack formal education in these fields are entirely capable of contributing in important ways to big efforts — if we learn to think of ourselves as connected and collaborating, and start to pay more attention.”

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