Tiny Changes Might Seem Insignificant. But They Are How We Save the Planet
Greta Thunberg and her Extinction Rebellion peers remind us that activism is not just about lobbying for change, but doing it ourselves
(September 22, 2019) — There is a celebrated line in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, his bestselling study of ecocide and sudden social implosion. Referring to the “self-inflicted environmental damage” on Easter Island by deforestation, Diamond asked: “What did the Easter islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”
While there has been much academic controversy about the accuracy of his shorthand for what happened on Easter Island, what remains, however, is a powerful and affecting metaphor, one ever more resonant in the midst of the escalating global climate emergency.
The question “What on earth are we thinking?” is, today, no longer an experiment in supposition. We can see the shape of the calamity and measure our responses and the hypocrisies and contradictions inherent in them. Confronted by a climate emergency on a vast scale, and with the widespread failure of our political leaders, we continue to behave as if someone else — anyone else — will solve the problem, rather than tackling it ourselves.
So we worry. And we continue to consume. And sometimes we consume as a way of escaping the worry of consuming — even as we struggle to step back and see the wider, and blindingly obvious, picture.
It is a cycle that has placed a well-founded sense of anxiety about humankind’s future, perhaps not experienced so viscerally since the depths of the cold war and the fear of nuclear annihilation, against a profound sense of powerlessness. Solutions can seem beyond our reach as individuals and, if solvable at all, are in the hands of governments.
There are, then, deep and pressing reasons to be desperately worried. But there are also reasons for optimism. Alongside a wider democratic crisis, last week’s climate strike — and the wider Extinction Rebellion represented by figures such as the teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg — exists as a potent reminder that activism is not simply about lobbying the seats of power but about our power. As individuals, we can shape the culture, societies and politics we live in and drive them towards better results.
In the heat of political debate, we forget sometimes the importance of individual acts
While it is easy to be cynical about the impact of protest in an age of populism, where politicians seem determined to find ways to become ever less accountable, the global reach and scale of last week’s strike suggest a shifting of public opinion. Where once events such as Climate Camp could attract a few thousands, mainly committed activists, the climate strike has attracted vast numbers across the world, many of them protesting for the first time. If we need leaders such as Thunberg, it is as a reminder of the importance not only of organised action but of what we can and should do for ourselves.
It is a philosophy that was best summed up by the US philosopher and educator John Dewey in The Ethics of Democracy. Dewey rejected the idea that democracy should be confined to narrow ideas of government, political institutions and electoral mandates. Rather, he argued, it should be seen as a way of life, recognising that it is individuals and their intrinsic interactions with society that make majorities for change. A lesson that has sometimes been obscured is that we know who Thunberg is because of decisions that she made as an individual, as a person who refused to be intimidated by the scale of the problem and chose to organise for change.
Some reject the notion that individual action — recycling or changing how much meat we eat or how we travel — is a sufficient response to the sheer scale of the problem confronting the planet. But this misses a key point about how we live our lives. In the heat of political debate, we forget sometimes the importance of individual acts. What we put in our breakfast bowl, small issue as it is, became — for me at least — something that made me think about the sustainability and provenance of what I ate when a friend pointed out that huge amounts of water are used to produce my once favourite almond milk.
Our individual moral choices — as consumers (and indeed how and whether to consume), how we vote, and what initiatives we support or we reject — might seem insignificant. But it is those small changes that can transform societies. Indeed, profound social change has often come incrementally. Consider the abolition of slavery, the movements for universal adult suffrage, trade union and gay rights. For the majority of us, the most powerful statement we can make beyond voting and occasional protest is in choosing how we live our lives in a consumer society and how we communicate those choices as part of the widening debate.
While it is easy for figures such as Donald Trump to mock the demand for the phasing out of plastic straws or the need for low-energy lightbulbs, the reality is that he is pushing against a wider and far more sophisticated appreciation of environmental impact. What’s more, an increasing number of large corporations have internalised their vulnerability to changing patterns, making consumers more powerful than many suppose.
A case in point is the major car manufacturers that have moved into electric vehicle production not because they feel it is the right thing to do but because they sense it is what customers will want in the future, because it is increasingly what future legislation will dictate and because they believe they will make money out of it.
There are two crucial lessons from last week’s climate strikes. The first is that we need to overcome our own sense of paralysis in the face of an epochal moment of anxiety. The second is that we are more powerful than we think.
And perhaps — just perhaps — the accumulation of small acts can lead to immeasurably larger outcomes. What is certain is that without asking what we are doing and acting on it, like the Easter islander with the axe in Diamond’s metaphorical question, we have absolutely everything to lose.
Peter Beaumont is a senior reporter on the Guardian’s Global Development desk. Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.