August 19, 2018

Individual Change vs System Change

Who is responsible? Individuals? The System? Both? How much for each?

Humanity has some big challenges to overcome.

In this regard, which is more effective - fostering individual change, or tackling the source of our problems, the system itself? And who is really responsible for the state of the planet we see today?

Alex, a long time NBA reader, sent me a link to an article that has me thinking about how we got here, and the most effective way forward. The article is called "People Aren't The Worst - They Are The Only Hope For The Planet", and can be found here.

In it, the author argues that focusing on or blaming individuals as the problem, is not only wrong headed, but more importantly, lets the real culprits off the hook.

Wet wipes, for example. Some pampered people use them to wipe their bottoms with after a bowel movement (using only water is just as effective, and does no damage). Then they flush them, because the wipes are labeled as "flushable". 

The problem is, they are most definitely NOT flushable, and each year such wipes cause millions of dollars of damages to sewer systems the world over. 

Wet wipe manufacturers are fighting any attempts to change labeling so consumers would be more informed. Companies know that if people can't flush them, they won't use them. So they continue to lie and mislead.

Can we blame people for driving when the fossil fuel industry has been spending billions to promote lies and denial concerning the dangers of their product? Their own scientists have known about human driven climate change for 40 years, but spent billions of dollars spreading misinformation and denial.

Kind of like the tobacco industry, which perfected the denial industry playbook. First cigarettes were good for you. Then they might not be good for you, but they most certainly weren't bad for you. Now, after decades of denial, we know that cigarettes will slowly kill you if you persist in smoking them.

Given the enormity of  institutional  denial and misdirection, how much choice do we as individuals really have? And it is not only that, the system is a juggernaut geared toward pushing us in the direction of maintaining private profit over protecting the welfare of the general public and environment. 

Richard Heede, carbon counter extraordinaire, says, "I as a consumer bear some responsibility for my own car, etcetera. But we're living an illusion if we think we're making choices, because the infrastructure pretty much makes those choices for us."

And yet blaming individuals for all the world's problems is rampant. I suppose I have been guilty myself from time to time. Indeed, it is perhaps easiest and satisfyingly simple to target individuals for all our woes. 

Take author Brian Czech, for example. In his book, "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop Them All", he asks readers to recognize conspicuous consumers as "bad citizens who are liquidating our grandkids’ future". 

I am tempted to see it in just this way, but have to wonder if it is "bad people" that we should concentrate on, or "bad ideas", like predatory capitalism. 

Perhaps it is "human nature" to flaunt one's wealth. To waste excessively. To want to "buy nice things" ad infinitum. To be ultimately selfish. Some people think just that. 

If so, what hope for change is there? If it is human nature, aren't we doomed?

I don't think these are innate desires - I believe we have been trained to be this way from birth, because it maximizes profit for the privileged few. Everything in a consumer culture promotes a way of life based on private consumption, rather than social, or public achievement.

Can we be therefore be blamed, and be held responsible? Are we not victims of the real perpetrators of the destruction of our planet? Doesn't focusing on what "we" can do let the real culprits off easy? What about what "they" can do? Or should do?

Just how much environmental damage do we create compared to the 90 companies and government-run industries, according to Heede, that have contributed more than half of the greenhouse gases emitted globally between 1751 and 2010? 

Individuals, however, can not be totally let off the hook. All users of damaging things bear some responsibility. And as Ram Das says, "As one individual changes, the system changes", so what we each do has cumulative, and often large, effects. 

Each of our decisions matter. The good ones, and the not so good.

Fixing what is wrong with this planet is a shared responsibility. Individuals will have to change. And so will the system. So far people have been changing, and government and economics have not. The source of the problem continues relatively unchallenged.

In "Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?", author Mark Fisher optimistically points out that "the very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” 

New disruptive technologies, such as those that enable the sharing economy, or old, like voluntary simplicity, could be what "tears a hole in the grey curtain" of our harmful system that is so bent on violence and destruction for fun and profit.

Right now the system is ripe for change, and it will be changed by events and decisions from the tiniest to the largest. Change will be ushered in by individuals, and by widespread, massive, and timely system change.

It is time to think big and challenge the establishment's "facts" which conclude that "there are no alternatives". Of course there are alternatives - anything is possible, like concluding that the system is the biggest problem, not whether I, personally, drive or take the bus.

Maybe it is time to be more lenient with the victims, and harsher on the perpetrators. And the biggest perp of all, is the system itself. 

“If you believed in capitalism, you had to attack science, because science had revealed the hazards that capitalism had brought in its wake. The biggest hazard of them all—one that could truly affect the entire planet—was just at that moment coming to public attention: global warming. 
Global warming would become the mother of all environmental issues, because it struck at the very root of economic activity: the use of energy. So perhaps not surprisingly, the same people who had questioned acid rain, doubted the ozone hole, and defended tobacco now attacked the scientific evidence of global warming.”  
― Naomi Oreskes


  1. Thanks Alex for the article that Gregg linked. It was a good read. Gregg I totally agree, we can't blame the individual; the victim of marketing manipulation. But that is precisely what the marketers want us to do. Keeping the focus on individuals, keeps the focus off "them" the real culprits who are packing all that money into their bank accounts. It's the same thing with wages. Suppress the wage, keep it really low, then the individuals on the ground are preoccupied with fighting each other for jobs thus keeps attention off of the top players.

    The Guardian article mentions that progressives feel isolated. We often do. I believe that is deliberately instigated too. Divide and weaken. Divide and conquer. And it works.

    This quote by Robert Heede you included says it all for me. It's worth repeating. "I as a consumer bear some responsibility for my own car, etcetera. But we're living an illusion if we think we're making choices, because the infrastructure pretty much makes those choices for us."

    There are some things I want to do that would further reduce my footprint, but the infrastructure and money system prohibits me from making those changes. At times it really upsets me.

    In some ways I am actually creating a larger footprint by doing things that are supposed to be reducing it! Like recycling. I have to drive over 10 miles to take my recyclables. From there they are trucked to a facility 13 miles away. After sorting they are sold to a contractor who hauls them even more miles. From there they are shipped out to places that can make products out of them. There is a lot of delusion about recycling. Everyone here knows it, but the general population does not. trying to talk to them about it gets them defensive.

    We need to invent a better plastic if we are going to use it. It needs to get to be bloody expensive so it is not as easy to waste it.

    I have another idea. I don't tell it in public because it might sound stupid. But all chemicals are made from something we mine from the ground, right? Yes, even our food and clothes are made using minerals. Plus all the machines that make everything are made from minerals we have mined. We don't we just toss our bales of trash into an active volcano, nature's incinerator? It would get all mixed up in there and atoms would bond and cool, then we could make more stuff out of all the new minerals. I got the idea while studying volcanoes a few years ago. Let me know what you think.

    Life is absurd. The longer I live the truer that is for me. BTW, I don't use wet wipes.

    1. Terri,

      Things are indeed getting surreal. We live in very strange times. Interesting, but strange. Like the volcano idea, but not sure how that would turn out. Also, how would we get all our trash to the volcano? Can we throw people in there, too?

  2. Karen5:10 AM

    I agree that manufacturers ought to be held a hell of a lot more accountable than they currently are. Misleading or straight out lies on advertising about their product should be a finable offence. Packaging and how recyclable/disposable it is should also be something the manufacturers are accountable for. Having said that I also totally think we all need to hold ourselves significantly more accountable than some of us do; after all we are the ones with the wallets that can remain closed and feet that can walk away from products that we deem not up to scratch. I swear that I despair sometimes at the mentality of folk. Now we're in the sixth extinction I can see a number of individuals taking themselves out of the gene pool first before the rest of us succumb. That sounds mean I know, I'm just overwhelmed by how much has gone wrong and how much we could've (and should've) collectively done to avoid the issues we're now facing.
    As for wet wipes....pffft. I bought a dozen smallsmall c squares ten years ago in preparation for our first baby. They have seen their way easily through daily wiping of 3 babies and have continued to provide good service even now when a wetter wipe is required for the children (or their parents!). Throw them in the wash, hang them in the sun and they're good to go. Common sense :)

    1. Karen,

      The denial industry sure hasn't helped. Couple their influence with politicians and business people with no integrity, and it is a dangerous situation. We have lost many, many good years and opportunities.

      Wet wipes, like most of what consumerism offers, are completely unnecessary. Imagine what a 10 year pile of wet wipes would look like. Meanwhile, the muslin cloths keep on going. One makes sense, one does not. Why do we do things that don't make sense? The evils of advertising? Gullibility? Are we getting less intelligent?


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