With the election of Barack Obama, many of us are riding a wave of hope. We cannot expect any leader, in government, in business, or in social enterprise, to do alone what is needed to undo the horrific damage of the Bush Administration and to try (we can only try) to avert the cascading crises that have now begun and which threaten all life on the planet including our own. We all have to do our part.
A couple of years ago, when things appeared more hopeless, I wrote an article that described what each of us can do, as individuals and in community with others, that could dovetail with the work of responsible and responsive governments, to rescue our beleaguered planet. In two years the situation has worsened, but the current economic collapse provides us with an opportunity to halt our growth-at-any-cost unsustainable industrial economy and get ourselves on the right track. For these reasons, my 2006 article needed an update, and that is what I offer here.
What you can do falls into three categories:
- Learning and Self-Change: Personal learning and preparedness actions.
- Modelling Behaviours: Activities and lifestyle choices that exemplify responsibility and sustainability; things you do one-on-one and collectively in community that show others what is possible and what they can do too.
- Political Activism: Personal actions you take to bring about political and economic reforms beyond your immediate community.
The actions you can take in each category are summarized in the above diagram. Here is an explanation of these actions:
Learning and Self-Change: If you’re going to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, you need the knowledge, the ideas, the capacities, the health and the optimism to do so:
1. Learn What’s Happening That’s Actionable: Rather than getting depressed by the torrent of bad environmental news, filter out the unactionable and unimaginative, and study only news and information that is personally actionable or innovative. Challenge ‘established wisdom’, especially when your instincts tell you it’s dubious. Learn your vulnerability to spin, and how to recognize and discount it. Learn to avoid the intellectual fallacies of groupthink and arrogance, but also avoid black hat thinking. Develop emotional intelligence, but never use it to manipulate. Skip the mainstream media, which are incompetent and unwilling to broach complex issues. Use social media to share the new information that’s important with others, and discuss its implications.
2. Imagine What You’re Not Shown, and Imagine a Better World: The school system and most business environments squelch our imagination. Imagining can also be frightening, picturing what others don’t want you to see. But it’s powerful, motivating, educational, and creative. Imagine what it happening in nations where genocide, oppression, eco-devastation and war are happening right now. Imagine what is happening in the factory farms before you decide what to make for dinner. Imagine what you could be doing if it wasn’t for your boring, meaningless job. Imagine a better way of doing something, a better way to live. Imagine what could be. Your instincts will tell you what to do next. If we can’t imagine, we can do anything. That’s what got us into this mess.
3. Reconnect With Your Senses and Instincts: Spend time both in nature, away from civilization, and with people, listening and talking about things that matter. In nature, reawaken and reconnect with your senses, focus each sense until you really see, hear, smell, taste, feel, connect with the rest of the living organism called Earth. Open yourself up to the joy, and learning of nature. Pay attention. Re-learn to wonder. Reconnect with your instincts, listen to them, and don’t let other people tell you you’re stupid, crazy, irrational, or immoral. If you’re unhappy it’s for a reason. Your gut feeling, your intuition, is written in your DNA, and it’s the source of knowledge that allows every living creature to know what to do. And it worked for man for the first three million years of his life on Earth as well — before language, before laws, before codes of right and wrong — and these were arguably the most successful, leisurely, and happy years of man’s existence. Listen to them, and they’ll tell you what to do.
4. Know Yourself: Pay attention to what motivates you, what you love doing, what you do well and badly, and what you care about. Be prepared to focus your energies on actions that draw on your gifts and your passions, because you are more likely to see such actions through when the going gets tough. Don’t let yourself be manipulated into doing projects you don’t really care about, just to avoid feeling guilty. There’s lots for all of us to do, and if we all do what our heart tells us to do, what we’re meant to do, collectively we will get the job done.
5. Be Good to Yourself: You’re not going to be any use saving the world if you’re depressed, unfit or stressed out. Don’t take the problems of the world personally, or blame yourself for them. Understand that at the heart of the modern age is a core of grief but don’t let that grief consume you. Take time for play and love. Eat healthy and stay fit. Learn how to prevent illnesses instead of waiting for them to occur. Spend time with people who like you, and accept their compliments warmly. Love yourself, realize that you can do anything you want to do. Appreciate that you’re part of the solution, and that makes you extraordinary.
Modelling Behaviours: Now you have the “right stuff” to be a change agent, select activities close to home, one-on-one and in community, and show those around you what to do by being a model of the change you want to see in the world:
6. Converse with Others, and Get Them Going: Have the courage to talk or write openly to people about things that really matter to you. Ignore the raised eyebrows and comments about your excessive seriousness and intensity — you’ll find most people care, too. Then listen, don’t preach. Leave behind one practiced, important (to you), well-articulated idea or thought with the people you touch, like planting a seed. Just get them started. And if they’re started, but blocked, help them get going again. Learn to tell stories — it’s the only effective way to teach. When you encounter naysayers, don’t argue; instead, ferret out the reason they feel so differently from you (don’t assume they’re ignorant or stupid). Then sow a single seed of doubt. Don’t let research, reading and writing keep you indoors too much. The real learning is outside. Travel frugally and when you do, stay with the locals, talk with them, try different things, listen and learn.
7. Volunteer: Pledge some time, each week, to help those suffering or in need. Pick a cause that you really care about — the soup kitchen, the animal shelter, whatever. Talk to the people you’re helping. Don’t get talked into fundraising activities — really get out there and do something with your own two hands. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll feel better, you’ll make a difference, and you just might find out something important about yourself, about what needs to be done, about your purpose and gifts and passions, about what you really care about (or don’t), about who needs your gift now. You thought you knew yourself before!
8. Stop at One and Encourage Others to Do Likewise: Consider the virtues of a single-child family. Learn why children in such families are the happiest and most successful. Better yet, adopt. Explain to others why you’re doing this, without being preachy about it.
9. Be a Model: Talk to others about, and show others, what you’re doing, not just what you’re thinking. Get together with others and make your whole community a model of a better way to live — or create a wholly new intentional community. Invite people to watch and learn and ask you questions. Let them practice themselves. People are far more inspired by a good working model than a good speech — it helps them imagine what’s possible. If you’re doing half the things on this list, you’re a great role model — let the world know, and inspire others to follow your example. And practice, practice, practice, to get even better.
10. Love Infectiously: Love openly, completely, as many people (and other creatures) as you can. Be emotional, except in those very rare occasions when dispassion is needed. Infect others with your passion. Smile excessively. But refuse to tolerate cruelty, suffering, unfairness, bullying, jealousy, apathy, despair, cynicism or hate, in yourself or others — alleviate it, disarm it, discharge it, whatever it takes to stop these negative emotions and activities, and appreciate that they’re signs of sickness, not evil. Deal with the pain that lies behind the anger.
11. Collaborate, Doing What You Do Well: If you have talents, specialized know-how, or technical or scientific skills and knowledge that could be useful in solving birth control, clean energy, disease prevention, conservation, animal cruelty, pollution and waste, local self-sufficiency, non-animal foods, ‘more-with-less’ product streamlining, self-organization, collaboration, consumer and citizen awareness and activism, animal communication, conflict resolution, mental illness, and other issues contributing to environmental deterioration, create exchanges and spaces where others can access what you know, contact you, and collaborate with you and with others to solve these problems. This peer-to-peer work is what will really make a difference: we cannot and must not expect governments, corporations, the ‘market’, new technology, the education system, leaders of any stripe (especially the self-proclaimed type), god(s), aliens, a sudden surge of connected global consciousness, or any other magical solution to fix the mess we face today. We’ve tried the top-down approaches and none of them have ever worked. Now it’s up to us.
12. Find and Do Meaningful Work: Each of us has talents, interests, and time. It’s amazing how many of us spend all our time doing work that we find uninteresting, and which doesn’t effectively use our talents. We become wage slaves, underemployed and bored because we’re convinced or afraid that a better job doesn’t exist. And we work so hard at it we have no time left to challenge that conviction or fear. That’s what got us into this mess. Find what you’re meant to do for a living (my book can help), and do it.
13. Simplify Your Life: Consumerism is doubly addictive — you get the fleeting pleasure of acquiring something, and then you have to work harder and earn more money for The Man so you can pay off the debt you incurred to buy it. Learn to live a Radically Simple life — buy less stuff, buy better quality stuff that lasts longer, make your own meals instead of using processed foods (and consider a vegan diet, using local ingredients), think before you buy, don’t get into debt (only buy when you have the cash in your account), buy local rather than imported goods (especially stuff from countries that have poor social and environmental standards), complain about excessive packaging, recycle, reuse, buy used, share tools with neighbours, turn off the lights, cover the pool, use energy-efficient lighting, keep your tires inflated, carpool, walk or bike instead of driving — you know what to do. Make a list, draw up a schedule, and do it. And then connect with, and teach others, to increase your own and your community’s resilience even more, while reducing your collective impact on the Earth.
14. Become Self-Sufficient: With others in your community, learn how to fix and make things instead of always having to buy replacements. Cut your own lawn and perform other services yourself, so you need less money and are not so needlessly dependent on others. Unschool your children. Learn how to prevent, self-diagnose and self-treat accidents and illnesses. Learn how to resolve disputes and grievances without using the dysfunctional legal system. Self-sufficiency is good for your self-esteem, lowers stress, reduces consumption and waste, helps the environment, and is good exercise. And if things go badly for civilization this century, it could be a survival skill.
15. Become an Activist: Pick a cause you care about, research what needs to be done, use the Internet to organize, and do it. But follow Peter Singer’s advice to make sure your time is well-spent. Especially the parts about not getting caught up in administration, and not trying to change, or enforce, laws. The most fruitful activism is all about informing and educating people, making them aware of their options, and their power as citizens and consumers, often one person at a time, until enough people have changed their minds or their behaviours to change the system. The next most fruitful activism is the only thing that can bring about political and economic reform: Knowing how the existing system works, why it’s failing, why it is the way it is, and precisely how to change it. This requires patience, expertise, time and persistence. But it has paid off in Europe, for example, where energy conservation and alternative energy programs are light years ahead of North America’s, and where ecological tax-shifting has occurred because it was presented knowledgeably and effectively as a win-win.
I’ve left activism until last for a reason. I really believe it is the least effective, and most discouraging, thing one can do to try to make the world a better place. The advice from Peter Singer I linked to above is essential if you’re determined to bring about political change, but I know some people who have followed it and still failed.
The system works the way it does for a reason, and often that reason is to increase the wealth and power of those who already have a disproportionate share of it, and to throw impossible barriers in the road of anyone seeking to change the status quo, even when that status quo is obscene. As Singer says, “The real battle is for the hearts and minds of people. Keeping in touch with what the public is thinking, selecting a target, setting an achievable goal, getting accurate information, maintaining credibility, suggesting alternative solutions, being ready to talk to adversaries or to confront them if they will not talkâall of these are directed toward creating a campaign that is a practical means of making a difference.” Such work is not for everyone. We should prepare now to be disappointed with what Obama does, and does not do. Even a president can only do so much. As Charles Handy says: No one willingly gives up power. Even is Obama can resist the power lobbyists, he will be stymied at every turn by those who cannot, including his own party members and government employees.
Fortunately, it is not necessary that everyone be an activist. Unless saner minds prevail than the ones making most of the critical political and economic decisions today, we are heading on many fronts for a collision with unsustainability. In such a case the centralized and fragile institutions of our civilization may well not survive, making the struggle for needed political, legal and economic reforms moot. If that happens, billions of people will be looking for another way to live, and those who have pursued the actions above will be in the best position to show them how, and to lead our fierce and intelligent species forward to confront what could be its greatestchallenge, and, after a long exile, to find our way home.