We all agree that we need to do something about our lack of sustainability, about living at the expense of the current young as well as future generations. We differ at what the something is. Some options:
Option 1. Improve our private impact on environmental and social sustainability.
All of us can make better choices, e. g., how we interact with our communities, how we travel, what we buy, how we handle our waste. In my experience, many people, when asked about actions towards sustainability, think mostly along these lines. Did you? We are well-trained by the consumerist ideology that our highest honor is to develop ourselves as individuals.
The GOOD: Developing ourselves is highly desirable. Humans are the actors in the game. Swimming in the right direction is good for our souls and can give us strength. It also offers a chance to talk with others about the fundamental problem.
The BAD: It can be a trap in many ways: (1) It is impossible to know enough even about just environmental sustainability issues like food, clothing, packaging, shopping, recycling, materials, housing, transportation, etc. Someone else will always know better. (2) Doing it can be painful, such as when trying to limit yourself to sustainable transportation within an underdeveloped public transport and bikeway system. All this, like swimming against a strong current, can lead to exhaustion. At which point many people may either take an easy consumerist path like buying unneeded fancy green clothing online or a big electric car which saves no resources whatsoever. Or they simply give up.
But perhaps the biggest trap is (3) to limit our activities to the private realm, rather than accepting that we are not the superheroes of the movies, that we have only limited personal energy and that we are sometimes addicted to our consumerist luxury living style. That we are social beings and need social solutions. That we need to fight our small fights, but have mercy for ourselves and preserve enough energy to take the necessary social steps without waiting to be saints in our private lives.
Option 2. Become active ourselves by developing alternative solutions.
We need to build alternative businesses and social initiatives. Examples are perhaps to start a local food coop society, local sustainability initiative, regional or national education initiatives.
The GOOD: Organization, solidarity, learning, discussion, reflection are the absolute basis for a sustainable future. We need more than theories and we rightfully all love initiative, startup, innovation and engagement.
The BAD: Not always, but perhaps too often, it ends in a niche (or it just ends). Any social or business initiative will be struggling within a legal and economic framework explicitly biased against sustainability. Businesses may survive on the self-exploitation of the people running them, on tiny subsidies in a niche, with a market of dedicated altruistic people. Without a change of rules, they will not be able to break out. As a social initiative, it is easy to fall so much in love with a –quite desirable – aspect of the sustainability agenda, to take the small sectoral action for the whole thing. Community gardening is a brilliant social sustainability initiative, but it does not solve food security problems. Slow food can change our perspective on food, but it will not change the agriculture of an overpopulated, needy world. Solar energy self-sufficiency with a prosumer model is an excellent component of any future energy system and welcome contribution to a more balanced distribution of power, but it does not eliminate the need for economic and social collaboration in providing energy and balancing volatile energy production and needs.
Again, the biggest trap is to get distracted, stop here and leave the political sphere to the influence of industry lobbyist, which through laws, taxes, and subsidies are able to tailor the system to their advantages and financial benefit. I don’t blame any company who does that. It is their job to stand their ground. But why are so few people looking into this complicated matter and form a strong peoples alliance?
Option 3. Become politically active ourselves and demand that the rules be changed.
I think it is obvious that this is the most important fight to fight and yet, too many people have given up this fight. Political is not fashionable. Or we may point to big money, big corporations and claim that they have taken over the power anyways.
Well, I consider that suicidal. It as if a person with cancer is taking all the secondary medications except for the one that is actually the one that is unpleasant but actually fights the cancer.
So what? I continue to believe in the power of political action. It was never easy. It was never painless. There were always strong lobby groups against positive political change. Yet political change was won again and again.
Some final thoughts
At rallies, we may chant “System change, not climate change.” We can all agree on the slogan, but do we mean the same thing? Some people think of communism, some of stopping the acceleration they feel in their lives, some of changing our lifestyles to a sufficiency model, some of a nationalistic rather than globalized economic system, some (me included) of changes to our market economy by removing environmentally destructive subsidies and charge for costs that future generations have to bear.
My conclusion is that although we should continue to discuss societal models, we should not waste time. Can we agree on concrete political demands that are truly effective enough to solve the problem?
The question which are the right demands is probably the million Euro question. I can only add a few insights at this point:
1. Do not limit yourself to options 1 and 2. I agree with Greta Thunberg, who says: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope”. We are understandably tempted to focus on what is politically achievable and what gives people a sense of fulfillment and self-efficacy.
2. Do not limit yourself on what can be easily sold. Like protecting individual cute animals. Most likely specific these demands will be tackled specifically, while the general forces continue to drive the other 99.9999% of animals to extinctions. Or by focussing on tiny segments of the plastic problems like shopping bags, drinking straws or coffee-to-go-cups, the solutions will be a proportionally small contribution to the problem.
3. I find the following image useful to think about the options:
IMAGINE, our life is like swimming in a stream. A strong current is carrying us into the wrong direction. We absolutely need to turn our heads in the right direction, but simply swimming against the stream will only exhaust us. We need to consider alternatives. Maybe start flying? Building a bridge? Building a boat?
But perhaps the most immediate and effective way is to realize that the stream is not made by nature, but by human water engineers. We need to redirect the stream, by changing the rules, by giving new instructions to the water engineers. In a democracy this is possible through political action, as soon as we, the people, force our elected politicians out of procrastination into action.
We need to get better at this game …
(NOT YET: To be continued: A collection of ideas which I consider promising.)
NOTES: Related German newspaper interview on need fear of the future, backwards thinking to plan collectively (in GERMAN): https://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/interview-am-morgen-brexit-zukunft-gesellschaft-1.4246603