Putting the Personal First

Some of us have been struggling for many years with the ‘every little bit counts’ arguments and have been wondering how to air them.

Anyway here goes; please let us know what you think.

One thing the environment movement, along with government, has succeeded in doing is to get out the message that everybody should do their bit. It is still the case that many people spend a lot of energy undertaking individual actions, such as minimising the use of plastic bags or cutting down on flights, or changing eating habits. Without wishing to decry such activities the focus upon the personal and the individual can be extremely burdensome and can hinder the development of collective actions.
If we are to breakout of our ‘green circle’ it is necessary to find and create spaces where others can share the climate agenda without necessarily subscribing to personal and life style commitments. Because of the pervasiveness of these personal life style viewpoint it may be useful to look at four related arguments:
1 – “I am doing my bit and that is enough”
2 – “We must all be green”
3 – “It is the little things that get through to people”
4 – “There are millions of us”.

(1) “I am doing my bit and that is enough”
Many think that doing their thing is enough. This has been described as the Blue Peter approach whereby one can ‘save a glacier by recycling yoghurt pots’. We are not arguing against this as such – as David Mackay says ‘every little bit helps but only a little bit’ – but are saying that doing little things, some of which may be extremely practical, can block the discussion and development of more strategic approaches.
The WWF, in their study called ‘Weathercocks And Signposts’ (see the attached and http://www.wwf.org.uk/research_centre/research_centre_results.cfm?uNe… 24 ) offered empirical evidence that the stairway theory (i.e. one step leads to another) does not does not lead up the staircase, indeed precisely the opposite – it can lead to closing of doors to more general arguments and understanding.

(2) “We must all be green”
Government, national and local, business and local councils are all heavily promoting the green agenda, with the focus upon the individual. It may be that many people have been put off by the constant drumming . But a more fundamental flaw is that it gives the impression that everyone is equally to blame for climate change and can play an equal role in preventing climate change. A government putting the blame onto individuals is ideal for them because it lets them get away with doing nothing; it diverts attention away from the unsustainable, wasteful system we live in and who we live under.

The emphasis upon the personal often, unwittingly, fosters a moralistic approach. Only too often people tell us that they are ‘guilty’ around personal emissions. Carbon footprint guilt stops people joining in, even coming to meetings and going on demonstrations.

(3) “It is the little things that get through to people”.
It is true that that small scale actions, focused for example around a supermarket, can increase general awareness and are a way of opening up connections. The danger is that the action (e.g. campaigning around incineration) becomes an end itself. Some actions may win and others will certainly not be successful. It is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture and where there are specific campaigns there should be dedicated action groups (within an alliance) focusing upon them.

Those anti-apartheid campaigners who boycotted South African oranges at the supermarket knew that their boycott in itself would do very little. However, in this case, the shop workers at the Dunnes supermarket in Dublin, following backing from their union, refused to handle South African fruit, which led to a strike in 1984 and eventually, in 1987 the Irish Government imposing sanctions on South African fruit and produce.

(4) “There are millions of us”.
Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest – How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, suggests that “there are over one – maybe even two – million organisations (worldwide) working toward ecological sustainability and social justice”. It has been suggested that in a city such as Oxford there are 90 organisations strongly involved in climate issues and campaigning. The low carbon communities network has more than 500 affiliated organisations in the UK. Up and down the country local carbon saving projects have sprung up. Paradoxically, the fact that PERSONAL ACTIONS DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE has created a diversion.

But, as Paul Hawken says, the movement is “atomised” and “largely ignored”. The movement is extremely diverse, has very little focus, and ways of organising collectively locally, on the broader issues, have still some way to go.

Building bridges with others
To conclude. Clearly many people are attracted by the focus upon individual actions and things that they can do. But on the other hand there are also as many (arguably more) who are put off by the stress upon behaviour change, the call to alter life styles, a degree of ‘hippyism’ and stridency associated with those who seem to be talking about the end of the world.
The question is how do we get through to this larger mass? Talking about life style changes and behaviour modification does not work.

Our challenge is not to make the personal political or the political personal, but to focus upon how we build a movement which impacts upon the political process, acknowledging that many people are disenchanted with politics. In building an alliance we need to respect the fact that there will and should be all sorts of people with all sorts of approaches. Within alliances and coalition there will inevitably be some discussions about priorities, accompanied by a need to see and articulate how we are working with one another, based upon the respect for the component and differing parts.

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One thought on “Putting the Personal First

  1. Disenchantment with politics
    Disenchantment with politics stems from the inconsistencies between the views of politicians when they are in opposition and the policies they enact when subsequently in power. We come to view them as self-serving, and abandoning their ideals for the sake of re-election.
    How can the political process be adapted to cope with this?
    Switzerland has a better record than most countries on green isues. That is partly because of its prosperity but many of the green policies there have been adopted as a result of referenda. The requirement to hold binding referenda on issues if sufficient signatories ask for this is written into their constitution. This could be more widely adopted.
    Our parliament would be more representative and more in touch with people if we formed our electoral constituencies on the basis of our interest groups, rather than the comparative accident of where we live.
    Our representatives would be more accountable if they were subject to regular appraisal in a poll of their electorate. A consistent decline in support below a necessary minimum could then trigger a local election. This would make for greater stability in the political process.
    The advent of electronic communication makes possible a huge enhancement of democracy.

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