Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Can We Change the World?

A friend sent me this article this morning, called We Cannot Change the World by Changing our Buying Habits by George Monbiot:

• In a consumer democracy, some people have more votes than others, and those with the most votes are the least inclined to change a system that has served them so well.

• A change in consumption habits is seldom effective unless it is backed up by government action. You can give up your car for a bicycle - and fair play to you - but unless the government is simultaneously reducing the available road space, the place you've vacated will just be taken by someone who drives a less efficient car than you would have driven (traffic expands to fill the available road-space). Our power comes from acting as citizens - demanding political change - not acting as consumers.

• We are very good at deceiving ourselves about our impacts. We remember the good things we do and forget the bad ones.

Read the whole thing here.

So....huh. What about that? I have to agree with a lot of what he says in that people think that by doing some fairly simple and popular things, such as recycling, they can identify themselves as "green". Personally, I think that the whole idea of promoting things like recycling and eco-products as "environmentalism" is misleading at best, harmful at worst. By giving people the impression that recycling, for example (can you tell this is one of my pet peeves?) helps the environment they can continue consuming away without a thought as long as they separate their plastic and glass at the end of the week. In reality, though, while recycling is better than putting waste in a landfill, and better than mining or making raw materials, it requires just as much energy, if not more, to make something out of something old, not to mention that there is considerable waste produced in the process.

I also agree that personal action is not enough, and we need to advocate for human rights, animal protection and the environment every chance we get. However, I think that personal action is important, both for the positive impact it makes and for the positive psychological impact it has on activists. It can be frustrating to work for change, but as long as we can see ways that we are making a difference in our own lives we can continue to feel good and hopeful in a way we might not otherwise be able to.

So I think this article is right and wrong. For people not inclined to look more deeply into the issues, they may be lulled into a sense of green-ness by some relatively insignificant actions, but I think these actions are still helpful. And for those who are willing to look deeper, then I think personal action is the wellspring from which all change will flow.