BY BEN HABIB.
Mohandas “Mahatma” Ghandi once famously exhorted his countrymen to “be the change you want to see in the world”. That is precisely the purpose of taking personal responsibility for one’s own response to the climate change threat. When we practice what we preach, we give moral authority to our message, we send an economic signal to the market, and we send a political signal to our elected representatives that is more powerful than our vote.
When many people do this simultaneously, the pressure begins to add up. As recent events in Egypt have demonstrated, many people taking personal responsibility for their predicament in concert can have profound, society-changing effects. A critical mass of people making integrated, climate-conscious lifestyle and political choices, can demonstrate a constituency for change to governments, the business community, and the broader society.
It is useful to play devil’s advocate with some of the criticisms of this viewpoint in order to make this case. First of all, it is often remarked that the actions of individual people only account for a small portion of the proximate causes of greenhouse gas pollution. By comparison, the greenhouse pollution of organisations in sectors of industry, transportation, business, agriculture and government are much larger. The emissions reductions necessary to avert climate disaster are therefore beyond the scope of the reductions possible through modification of individual behaviours are beyond what any one person can achieve and instead require a revolutionary reconfiguration of society-wide energy and economic systems.
The enormity of this task leads some people to say “it’s too hard” and abdicate responsibility for carbon mitigation and leave the heavy lifting of emissions reduction to the government, big business, or indeed anyone else but themselves.
This, however, is a false dichotomy. Individual people and large organisations are not exclusively separate entities. We live in a complex society in which individual people are linked in with numerous larger networks, be it through their family, workplace, community, educational institutions or recreational activities, to name a few. Individuals can exert agency as consumers making conscious and restrained purchasing choices, citizens influencing the political process through informed voting, protest or direct action, as employees encouraging sustainable work practices, or as decision-makers exercising power over their organisation or polity.
Similarly, large organisations are not monolithic structures but rather are owned, managed and staffed by individual people, which implies that the decisions taken by these people can have some influence on the activities of the whole.
Critics would launch the counter-argument that change in large organisations is difficult because of institutional momentum. As any public servant or corporate employee can attest, institutional behaviour tends to occur as outputs of patterned activity. In any large organisation, operations tend to be segmented between smaller sub-units, which fulfil their specific, narrowly-defined duties according to a set operating procedure or routine.
The agency of individuals is extremely limited within this context. All of us have sold our souls for the pay check at some stage. People tend to adopt the personality of their operational role within the routine of the organisation they work for, regardless of their personal preferences or beliefs.
However, institutional sub-units often struggle when presented with a problem that does cannot be addressed within their narrowly-defined operating procedures. Altering the operating procedure of any one sub-unit would usually mean redefining the raison d’être of the whole organisation, a capability that few, if any individuals within the organisation posses. This is especially true of government bureaucracies. As a result, large organisations generate an almost unstoppable momentum because they have essentially taken on a life of their own. As a former public servant, I understand the constraints of working as a very small cog in a very large bureaucratic machine. Positive change is difficult to engender within a large, hierarchical organisation.
Yet change is possible because crisis events occur from time to time where operating procedures break down or become redundant, which break bureaucratic momentum. It is at these key moments that institutions need environmentally conscious people with expertise in sustainability and a willingness to inject this consciousness and expertise into operational procedure.
For people attempting to influence large organisations from the outside, these occurrences provide the greatest opportunity for successful exertion of pressure. Where carefully leveraged, external pressure can aid progressive insiders within an organisation. This is particularly relevant to exerting pressure on the government.
The relationship between the people and government in liberal-democratic countries is inter-dependent when the public are engaged in the political process. As Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer has noted,
Diverse people locally and globally are doing ever-more wonderful things; they are the real battalions of hope in our climate war. Not because they’ll ultimately fix everything themselves, but rather because they incubate the community pressure that shifts the opinion polls that finally move the hold-back politicians and captains of industry.
Getting back to the original premise, it is when individuals act in concert with others that personal behavioural and lifestyle have their greatest effect. While there are other actors in society with a greater carbon footprint, whose activities are difficult to change, a collective of conscious and active individuals demonstrates a constituency for change that is vital if progress is to be made when opportunities arise.
As British thinker George Monbiot has explained, governments are unlikely to take action on climate mitigation “while it remains politically less costly than the alternative.” For Monbiot, the task of climate conscious individuals is “to make it as expensive as possible” for governments to ignore the problem. This is the political dimension of individual behavioural change.
Climate change is an existential threat to human civilisation, a threat which we ourselves are contributing to as individuals and as members of various social collectives. The damage we are doing is a product of destructive behaviours that are underpinned by ideas and assumptions that are not our own, which originate as the propaganda of our economic systems.
However we can re-assert control. By critically scrutinising our own underlying belief systems, we can empower ourselves to challenge these externally mediated messages and make conscious behavioural and lifestyle choices, thoughtful of their impact on the Earth, upon which the very existence of our human societies depend. In so doing, we, as members of a group of active change agents, can translate our personal behavioural changes into the broader political and organisational change deemed necessary if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided.
So let’s take Ghandi’s dictum seriously and be the change we want to see in this world, because that is the only way we are going to make it happen.
- Monbiot, G. (2006). Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. Melbourne, Allen Lane.
- Tjernström, E. and T. Tietenberg (2008). ‘Do differences in attitudes explain differences in national climate change policies?’ Ecological Economics 65(2): 315-324.
- Stern, P. (1992). ‘Psychological Dimensions of Global Environmental Change.’ Annual Review of Psychology 43: 269-302.
- Dyer, G. (2005). Future Tense: The Coming World Order. Toronto, Scribe.
- Allison, G. and P. Zelikow (1999). Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York, Longman.
Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Towns Albury-Wodonga, and publishes the blog Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.