Taking responsibility for saving the world

One of the big problems I often come back to is how to convert campaigns into individual action, and vice versa. Or, even more commonly, how do we make good intentions into actions that have a public benefit?

This can be simple when looking at local things, like picking up litter or clearing weeds from a local native plant reserve. We can just go and do that, normally without too much effort. We can even invite some friends to join us. When we come to issues like climate change, the oceans filling up with plastic waste and killing marine animals, or ecosystem collapses, it's a different story. They seem so big and we are so small. What can we do by ourself? So, we get behind campaigns designed to make someone more powerful than us take action, such as the government committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, getting rid of single use plastic bags, or preventing farmers from using sprays that kill bees.

I've been reading a collection of writing by the American agrarian writer, Wendel Berry, and this passage jumped out at me the moment I read it.

To me, one of the most important aspects of the environmental movement is that it brings us not just to another public crisis, but to a crisis of the protest movement itself. For the environmental crisis should make it dramatically clear, as perhaps it has not always been before, that there is no public crisis that is not also private. To most advocates of civil rights, racism has seemed mostly the fault of someone else. For most advocates of peace the war has been a remote reality, and the burden of the blame has seemed to rest mostly on the government.

But the environmental crisis rises closer to home. Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, every time we eat a bite of food we are suffering from it. And more important, every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy—and our economy’s first principle is waste—we are causing the crisis. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet. A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty. That realization ought to clear the smog of self-righteousness that has almost conventionally hovered over these occasions, and let us see the work that is to be done.

Wendel Berry, 'Think Little', 1970.

Many years ago I worked for our Regional Council on an environmental action campaign we called 'Be The Difference' where we promoted environmentally-positive actions people could take without inconveniencing themselves too much. Recycling is a classic example of this. It takes little effort to put recyclable items into separate containers instead of the normal rubbish bin. However, this gets us only so far. As Berry says, "our economy's first principle is waste" so putting recyclable items into a different waste stream isn't enough; we have to greatly reduce the amount of waste in our homes, and that involves significant changes in how and what we buy and use.

This is not to minimise the benefits of these sorts of consumer-level actions. However, we can take them without greatly affecting the industries that produce waste.

The problem with change is that it is often inconvenient; even changing to doing something that is better than at present. We get used to our ways, and new ways are unfamiliar; they are work and we try to avoid unnecessary work if we can. Mostly, we hate to do without something we rely on or are attached to.

In the case of climate change, for typical urban consumers, we will need to drastically alter the way we move around the place. That means eliminating or minimising the use of cars and using other transport instead, such as trains, buses, and bikes. That's fine if those alternatives exist; they are uncommon in smaller towns and completely absent in the country. Even then, most of us only use them if it's convenient. Tens of thousands of people travel into the city every day on the trains and buses to go to work in the city or go to school. Very few of the same people, apart from the students, use the train in the weekend if they go into town with their family to go shopping or to some entertainment. No, we drive our cars because they are more convenient. The same with going shopping or taking the kids to sport on Saturday morning. We live next to the main state highway in the region and I know that traffic past our house is as heavy—often heavier—in the weekend.

International travel is almost as bad. So many of us expect to be able to do it and the tourism industry, which employs millions around the world, depends on it. We've seen from the complaints from people who can't freely move across the border into New Zealand during the pandemic that many of us see it as a right—to be able to see family members every couple of years at Christmas, to visit every new grandchild overseas, and to go on regular overseas holidays. This is made possible by airlines that operate at the margin of profitability and offer cheap travel. One good thing from the pandemic for the environment is the reduction in this.

But, it's not only travel. It's good for the businesses involved, but is the world really a better place (socially and environmentally) because someone can cut flowers on a farm in New Zealand and have them flown to Asia so they can be in a florist's shop in just over 24 hours? I think not.

As Berry says, "there is no public crisis that is not also private." The public approach is relatively clear; there are many theories of change and lots of people willing to be involved in campaigns to change someone else's behaviour. Taking effective private action and responsibility is harder—at least as hard as changing institutions. How much is each of us prepared to give up to make the change we need? I can only speak for myself, but I bet it's not enough. Our capitalist economy is based on convenience, consumption and waste. We've come to expect it, and base our lifestyles around it.

This gets to the crux of a problem; political campaigns are designed to change the behaviour of governments and organisations, while social marketing or community-based campaigns are designed to change the behaviour of individuals. We need to be involved in both if we are to fix the problems of the world.


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