“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead
The new mantras of change — “build back better”, “green recovery”, “just recovery” — suggest policy, decisions taken in high places, and organisations pushing for green new deals: actions that seem to have less to do with individuals and more with political bodies, councils, governments, organisations, and corporations. In a way, this is understandable; these mantras do refer to policy and action aimed at communities, cities, counties, and nations. Collective action represents a more consistent and rapid push for systemic change – usually referring to a transition to a fairer, responsible, sustainable type of society.
These mantras can create a sense of detachment, and even relief for those thinking that others are carrying out ‘the change’ as a full-time job, while we, the individuals, can go about our business-as-usual until forced out of it by policy and regulations. It doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want change, it just makes us feel disempowered, outside of the change equation. For instance, why bother with individual action when 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions?
Below I explore the importance of maximising individual actions as a powerful tool for positive change, to be used in parallel with group action and political activism.
So what is individual action?
When it comes to the climate crisis, it is the set of actions individuals undertake to reduce their own ecological and carbon footprints. These actions are usually triggered by a sense of responsibility for the state of the world and the impact our habits and daily routines have on it.
In so-called developed, affluent countries, these climate actions could mean ditching the private car, forgoing air travel, using public transportation, adopting a plant-based diet, creating less waste, switching to clean energy, buying less stuff, composting, reducing, reusing, etc.
The ongoing debate about what’s going to change the world faster — individual or political action — is an interesting pastime over a cup of tea, but looking closely at the state of the world, it becomes clear that we need all hands on deck at all levels to tackle the many crises we’re facing.
This is not only about the climate crisis. This is about human rights, pollution, waste, resource depletion, ignorance, indifference, social injustice, systemic racism… All converging during a pandemic. It’s the multi-faceted mother of all crises.
Considering our impact on the habitat we depend upon, the resultant well-being of the future is an unusual concept for societies used to growth without limits, and a focus on fast, immediate profits, with little regard for “externalities”. And the responsibility for change lies with some parts of the global population more than with others.
There are almost eight billion individuals in the world. Let’s keep in mind that billions of them lack essential freedoms, resources, or both, while just a small percentage controls much of the planetary wealth. This control results in the over-use and abuse of common resources, and high rates of pollution. For instance, if the wealthiest 10% of people in the world cut their carbon emissions to the level of the average EU citizen, global emissions would be reduced by a third.
And in these affluent societies it’s not the struggling, low-paid individuals that should carry the burden of change, but those for whom change is truly a matter of choices, not a disruptive event. Because of the many degrees of individual responsibility, discussion of individual action needs to be contextualised and scaled to socio-economic realities.
What I discuss in this text is mainly aimed at those living in high-consumerist Western countries, where shopping is too often the only individual action.
Individual action should be more than a shopping list
A shopping list altered to consist of eco-friendly, fair trade, ethical brands should not be the only evidence of inclinations towards sustainability and individual responsibility. In the words of the Zero-Waste Chef: “A greener version of consumerism is consumerism wearing a halo. Our lifestyles require drastic changes not green bandaids.”
Ethical consumerism is a widely debated approach to individual action. It has its pros, but if we stop here, individual change will be easily outweighed by political inaction. Although how and where we invest (or divest) our money is an important step in creating positive change with our actions, what we do without money, outside the supermarket or the bank, can be more powerful for our lives, our households – and by extension, the wider community and even the world.
The blame game
Sure, corporations have passed the blame onto consumers since day one. Indifference towards the long-term effects of their (sometimes interchangeable) toxic residues and disposable products, on both humans and the environment, is at the core of the corporate playbook. These shortcomings and transgressions are often displayed in broad daylight in PR campaigns that erase or downplay the truth (AKA greenwashing). In this way, terms like “eco”, “green”, and even “sustainability” have been co-opted and rendered meaningless by the corporate and mainstream media grind.
A good example of passing the blame onto individual consumers is the recycling illusion that mammoth companies such as Coca-Cola (“world’s biggest polluter”) have been running for decades: ‘We make the plastic bottles, so why don’t you, consumer, recycle them?!’ But we now know how toxic plastic is, how it chokes the oceans, and that microplastics are present even in rainwater and the Arctic wilderness. We also now know that waste management doesn’t support the claims that recycling is the best solution to the company’s epic pollution. Recycling is a faulty system that doesn’t really work in most countries.
However, corporations of this scale have the financial means to fix this problem of production and supply chain – if they choose to. And why aren’t they regulated by strict legislation regarding waste from the commercialisation of toxic and troubling materials like plastic (legislation which, again, is nonexistent in most countries)?
In this messy situation, the individual must rise above the corporate finger-pointing, and instead act according to personal values that transcend the mainstream’s flimsy diversions.
Remember those DIY revolutions during lockdown?
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us into individual actions. At times it was an interesting exercise: our kitchens, gardens, yards, and balconies became labs for sustainability. But we rediscovered them less from a genuine interest in reducing household food or plastic waste, and more as a result of daily life in lockdown.
In the world of ready-made and “Just eat”, it felt like breaking an unwritten marketing rule just by doing something as immemorial as cooking from scratch. Some of us even realised that spending time in the kitchen isn’t that bad, especially when you have a tiny, fully-functional cooking factory fitted in there.
Digging through cupboards for long-lost dry foods made us think twice about taking another trip to the store. Sourdough loaves started pouring onto Instagram feeds. Wilted produce we would have ‘normally’ discarded became a stir-fry fusion on our dinner table.
Some people discovered their dusty sewing kit and started mending old clothes dumped on the charity-shop pile. Those lucky enough to have a garden started tending it, or picking berries from the previously unacknowledged bushes in their street, admiring the robins at 5 am, getting that bicycle fixed, jogging twice a day, or spending lazy days with dear ones. Without knowing, we were building resilience in our own homes, starting miniature home-DIY revolutions.
By acting outside a system where money is the only way to get ‘value’, essentials, and services, we gain in self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and a sense of security no money can buy.
The Zero-Waste Chef, the Gangsta Gardener, and the Foraging Minimalist
Ideally, the high-consumers and polluters – those who carry most of the blame – should push for change, but personal values aren’t proportionate to hierarchies, ownership, and assets. Ultimately, positive change is made by those who wish to see this world be a better place than when they were born into it.
The following three examples are chosen from the many (and growing number of) individuals making a difference with their lifestyles as you read this. They all started their journeys pre-COVID, so they weren’t a result of shelter-in-place restrictions. Not coincidentally, all three are based in the USA, the largest consumer market of the world.
These individuals started small, away from inquisitive eyes. Then they shared their journeys and useful, practice-based advice on blogs and social media accounts: a mechanism that helped them continue making the ripples they’d created spread far and wide.
The Zero-Waste Chef
“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” — Anne Marie Bonneau
Anne Marie Bonneau is better known to the blogosphere and the social networking maze as the Zero-Waste Chef. Sick and tired of the mountains of household waste discarded every day, she wanted to do something about it, so went plastic-free in 2011. Zero-waste came soon after – almost 10 years later, she hasn’t “quite hit zero waste in the kitchen”, but is very close.
The full-time working mother of two decided to document her journey online in her spare time for others to see, and to inspire their own quests. Creative and versatile, she makes her zero-waste journey seem like a fun game, while her pantry looks like one from a plastic-free fairy tale.
Tips range from the common sense (“don’t forget your cloth bag” on your shopping trips) to perfect sourdough starters, foraged blueberry pies, restoring cast-iron pans found by the curbside, and community get-togethers to sew cloth bags – and (more recently) masks.
Her Instagram introduction spells things out:
“Lots of sourdough and fermentation
“No processed food
As simple as that: a casual day’s to-do list with the weight of a life-long commitment, reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Another to-do list for the conscious consumer which the Zero-Waste Chef often quotes or plays with: “Wash laundry, not too much, hang to dry.”
Since her following has increased to hundreds of thousands by now, on several social media channels, she’s become involved in documentary screenings and protests: a true mouthpiece for causes that transcend her zero-waste quest, but which are always in need of influencers with strong principles.
A few quick takeaways:
- Keep in mind that going zero-anything is far from an overnight miracle; it’s not a failure if you don’t manage it in the first month, or even years later. Zero-waste journeys can take decades to perfect.
- The “zero” is meant to guide you, not torment you.
- This is not enforced by an external force (yet). Rejoice! Create your own rhythm.
- Talk to your family or housemates; ask them to join you, or just to offer some support. A big plus for Anne Marie was a supportive family that joined what has always looked like a game, not a struggle. At 16, her daughter started her own blog: The Plastic-Free Chef.
- Anne Marie lives in an intentional community, which can help in shaping a vision for a responsible lifestyle: sharing, care, and frugality. You might want to give this a second thought.
Zero-waste is not new; it’s just forgotten. It might sound revolutionary for someone living in 2020 USA, but my grandparents have been doing every single thing she’s doing. Their routine was pretty much Anne Marie’s routine, only we’re talking post-WW2 Europe. I don’t remember them ever complaining about taking a cloth bag to the shop or in-house cooking; wasting food was sacrilege, and planting some greens on a patch of land was a joyful must.
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“Earth’s messenger for green living”
You can roll your eyes at this statement, but if you look at this guy’s projects and overall lifestyle over the last decade, you’ll know it’s no exaggeration. Rob Greenfield describes himself as “an activist and humanitarian dedicated to leading the way to a more sustainable, just and equal world.”
He’s truly devoted his life to taking on all types of sustainability challenges – which he’s pushed to an extreme without it becoming uncomfortable, like some penitential undertaking. Why all these “experiments”? To bring attention to important social and environmental issues, to catch mainstream media’s and people’s attention, and inspire positive change.
Greenfield focuses on food freedom, zero-waste activism, food waste, and living simply and sustainably. He’s lived for one year without money, foraging, gardening, and building his own tiny house from discarded construction materials; he’s rummaged through skips for perfectly good food, and even carried around all the plastic waste he produced over a month of living like the average American. By wearing every piece of trash he created, he became a walking banner for contemporary society’s reliance on ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.
He now owns fewer than 50 possessions, which fit into a small backpack: “the result of nearly a decade of rethinking life as I once knew it and taking action upon this thought”.
Discussing it at TED conferences, Greenfield described his current minimalism as a natural extension of his explorations into sustainable lifestyles, while his experiments have been turned into books, documentaries, blogs, and social media posts liked and shared by hundreds of thousands.
Rob doesn’t seem to want to go back to any type of normal; we might say that he made his own conversion. His life is considered drastic compared to current living standards in the Western world – he agrees, but adds that this is “because our current society is so extreme”. Existing harmoniously with the rest of the living world is radical only to those whose norm is convenience at any cost.
A few quick takeaways:
- Yes, if there are patches of vegetation even in your urban area, you can do some foraging.
- No, he’s not doing any of this for the money. He donates 100% of his media earnings to grassroots nonprofits and has committed to living simply and responsibly for life.
- Rob regularly breaks away from social media and the internet. Living in tune with nature and the planet requires some time offline. If you become an influencer, don’t let this status run your life; that shouldn’t be the main goal.
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Planting a food revolution
Ron Finley, also known as the “Gangsta Gardener” and a “pioneer of sustainable food”, grew up in South Central Los Angeles – an area known as a “food prison” due to its lack of fresh produce. He wanted kids to grow up with the option of “healthy food, instead of fried, fattening staples”, so ten years ago he set out to fix the problem by planting vegetables on public land, in the unused curbside dirt strip in front of his house. It was against the law, but his persistence and subsequent campaigning eventually paid off: his neighbourhood was turned from a food desert into a food forest.
It’s the same story: gardening – an activity essential for a healthy and sustainable life – becomes an act of defiance. A world that prioritises corporate profit fears that the empowerment of individual gardeners, bakers, or menders will chip away at the profits of the tentacular enterprises currently in control of food production and distribution.
Ron Finley has created an entire movement in his city, and inspired similar action around the world. It’s a perfect example of individual power, and what happens when one person goes the extra mile, and unfollows some rules in order to take the higher road. His individual actions are educational, inspiring, and nutritious.
In the words of Joanna Macy, he is embracing a collaborative model of power (power-with versus power-over), appreciating how much we can achieve by working together rather than as separate individuals. And the first step he took was out of concern for the health of his community.
Currently, he is also teaching on MasterClass: “How to grow your own food, keep your plants alive, and find beauty and freedom in gardening no matter the size of your space.”
In Ron’s world, gardening is gangsta, cool kids know their nutrition, and communities embrace the act of growing, knowing, and sharing the best of the earth’s fresh-grown food.
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A few final takeaways:
“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” ― Rebecca Solnit
- Individual action can be so much more than just “feeble lifestyle responses”; the above examples stand as proof.
- Actively sharing one’s sustainability journey with others, through the myriad of communication channels, can fill the world wide web with a bit of hope and practicality – in opposition to the pointlessness, emptiness, and falseness that makes up such a large proportion of the content on the internet. Doing so will bring positivity and usefulness to a tool that has been all too often hijacked by misinformation and hatred in the last few years.
- Do the ‘sharing’ live, too, with family, friends, and co-workers.
- Individual change prepares us for a world where we are more conscious inhabitants of this planet. It’s fun, too.
- If you can afford to, join grassroots organisations close to your heart; share your skills, time, and money as part of your conscious living.
- Raise your kids to be good stewards of this planet; teach them the above skills and a thousand more. Show them how these activities can bring joy and even create some financial independence.
Remember that being the change we want to see in the world is a transformative and fulfilling experience, beyond the simple drive to see your ecological impact lowered. Planting some seeds in your curbside, ditching plastic, and downsizing the stuff in your life matters in the big scary equation of systemic change. These ripples on the pond are essential for change.
In the comments, feel free to add your own journey, achievement, or actions for a livable world.