A System of Collective Individuals

It has been reported that the globe is warming, that the Earth is heating up, that Arctic ice is sweating to the point of diaphoresis, that food production is threatened, that permafrost is melting, that the oceans are acidifying, and that all over the globe people perish in disastrous natural events like fires, floods, landslides, hurricanes, typhoons, and tornados.

These happenings have begged the question asked by society for as long as I’ve been alive: What can we do about it?

Assuming that global warming is unequivocal, and that greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation are the primary causes, we can (and have been) looking for and acting upon a variety of solutions to the crisis of climate change.

There are of course, the everyday feel-good solutions that make us satisfied in our daily lives. Actions like bike riding, recycling, using public transit, and the changing of light bulbs from the pear shaped incandescents to twirly CFLs.  But what is happening in the larger arena? When we pull the frame back from our daily lives and position it so as to see farther afield, what do we observe? What do we see when we look at the country? What do our eyes fall upon as the lens continues to be drawn back, when we look at things systemically?

The Individual

Before the pulling back of the frame, however, let us look at the light bulb, the bicycle, and the blue bin. To address the latter two, and to speak on an individual, personal level, I can state that I have been riding a bicycle since my father fitted one with training wheels on my fifth birthday. When I learned about the benefits of recycling in elementary school, I drafted a letter to the mayor of my city, asking why the municipality didn’t yet have a recycling program. Over the course of my life my bicycle has grown in proportion to my body, and my hometown has been recycling for almost twenty years now. So, it seems, in some small individual way, I’ve been at this whole “green” thing for a while.

Like the bicycle and the recycling of consumer waste, florescent light has been around a while too. The helical compact florescent light was invented in 1976. But it wasn’t until 1995 that it started to meet high levels of production. When I started to fit my dwellings with CFLs, after the mass marketing of this more efficient light source, they became an integrated part of my domesticated life, on par with recycling and bike riding.

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Do you cringe when you see bottled water? Do you get the servers at the café to fill the container you brought from home with your lunch? Do you “lug a mug”, as the saying on campus goes?

I do, whenever possible.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad; if you’re someone who doesn’t tote the Tupperware, no judgment friends. But I really can’t help these actions and thoughts of conservation. They’re entrenched within me. Why?

These small, individual actions are echoed in the society of which we are apart. To this day, I have the energy conservation campaign slogan, “Do your part, be power smart”, burned into my cortex. These six words—and my mother’s constant reminders, so frequent in my childhood—are surely the beginnings of my environmental concerns; they are certainly the root of why I never leave a room without turning off the light.

It is the world around me, the degradation of the environment and those people who it impacts with the greatest severity, that solidifies these small, individual actions into a sense (perhaps a false sense) of environmental security; that indeed I am, “doing my part”.

Have these years of awareness and efforts to conserve solved anything? Have I changed enough light bulbs, biked enough miles, or recycled enough tetra-packs to make a difference? The waterfall may begin with a single drop of water, and the efforts of every individual count toward the larger picture, but the real results lie in the climate, in the Earth, and it would seem she is still running a temperature.

In her article for The Nation, Naomi Klein writes “that individual action will never be an adequate response to the climate crisis. Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action.”

Great, thanks Naomi.

It’s easy to become discouraged by such a statement; make a guy think his genuine action to make a difference has been superfluous. But as the individual delves into the direct actions of the collective, and sees the results of the many, as opposed to the one, they will come to realize that they don’t conserve because they think they’re actually making a big difference; it is the actions themselves that serve as a small part of a greater whole; without the one, the many could not exist; we conserve, reduce, minimalize what we use in our daily lives because it’s in these actions that our solution begins: our solution to the over-packaged industrialization that has plasticized the modern world.

The Collective

A bunch of us got together and took a bus to Washington D.C.. There was to be a protest. OED:  protest | noun | The expression of social, political, or cultural dissent from a policy or course of action, typically by means of a public demonstration; (also) an instance of this, a protest march, a public demonstration.

The Keystone XL pipeline project, or more pointedly, the march in opposition of it, brought thousands of people together, all commonly concerned, all taking action, collectively. Circling the White House and stopping traffic in Washington for a few hours, wasn’t just fun, it worked.

A few months after the march, President Obama announced that he rejected the Keystone XL pipeline that was to take Alberta tar-sands oil to refineries in Texas. While the president stated that this was for political reasons, and that his decision in no way negates the possibility of future pipeline proposals, environmentalists hailed it as a victory. Regardless of the motivations behind the decision, helping, at least for the time being, in preventing the possibility of this:

feels better than bringing Tupperware to a restaurant or a coffee mug to school. It does more to solve the problem too, if only to bring awareness to the climate crisis.

And perhaps it was a victory, a small one. But if Canada can’t sell its oil to our southerly brothers and sisters, then perhaps we’ll find another, more distant relation to take it.

Stretching a pipeline from Northern Alberta to our coastline, has been on the radar for quite some time. Though I think we’ll have some trouble getting it to our cousins in China with the very (very) recent ban on oil tanker traffic along the coastline of B.C., another feat of environmental activism, coupled with governmental common sense.

So, it appears collective action works, to some degree. The successful ban on oil tanker traffic along the B.C. coast was supported by local governments, but what do we see when we pull the lens back to look at the federal level?

Typically, in a parliamentary democracy, of which we have one of the oldest in the world, our elected representatives embody the various voices of the nation. So, if we as citizens of this nation are concerned with what we are doing to rectify the problem of climate change, it would seem likely that our elected representatives—that is to say, our collective voices—would likewise be having this discussion.

It has been reported that they are not.

This may strike you as odd. Especially when phrases like “carbon taxes” and “climate plans” have been used in debate in the House of Commons these past weeks.  But as one Parliamentarian said recently: “I hear the words, but the issue is ignored.” To expand on this tip-toeing around the issue, Green Party leader, Elizabeth May said in a recent blog post that “instead of talking about what we should be doing, the main parties are stuck in a Mobius loop of distortion.” She goes on to mention that a question she voiced in the House (with reference to the fact that we once planned to meet the targets of the Kyoto Protocol)  was cut off by the heckling that is all too infamous in parliament. How are we to address an issue as serious as climate change when we cannot even ask an intelligent question regarding it?

From Christina S’s blog post on March 22nd (found below), we are reminded of the Harper administration’s obvious lack of plans to address the climate crisis, and it seems any serious discussion regarding this issue is to be lost in the cacophony of partisan hooting. Are we to wait then, until 2015, when we can yet again trust in the electoral process (itself an area for concern) and strive to seat an administration worthy of tackling global warming? Do we have that much time?

It has been reported that we do not.

According the Copenhagen Diagnosis 2009, “Delay in action risks irreversible damage: Several vulnerable elements in the climate system (e.g. continental ice-sheets, Amazon rainforest, West African monsoon and others) could be pushed towards abrupt or irreversible change if the warming continues in a business-as-usual way…”

If changing light bulbs, riding bicycles, and marching are effective only as feel-good acts of environmental first-aid, and trying to get our voice heard in parliament is likewise an exercise near futility, taking into consideration that this is a time sensitive matter, where do our solutions lie?

The System

Andrew Dessler’s book, Introduction to Modern Climate Change, succinctly and simply spells out the science behind the climate crisis. What makes this volume stand out from others I have perused, is that it also addresses climate policy. Calling upon our politicians and voting for parties with a mandate of environmental action is an important and effective way of making change. But is it, as Dessler says, “the single most important thing [we] can do”? What if our answers lie outside the framework of party politics?

To rely solely on our politicians and bicycles will not stop this threat. Climate change is coupled with (and perpetrated by) another threat. It is what professor Chomsky at MIT calls, a “huge propaganda system, proudly and openly declared by the business world.”

If we trace the climate crisis back to its roots, we see, obviously, that its pedigree is our over consumption of natural resources. Our over consumption of natural resources is in no way coming to a halt. Slowing down the consumption of products and the fuels that deliver them to our proverbial doorsteps would mean slowing the production of such materials and fuels. This is contra to the multinational corporate agenda, whose primary concern is their shareholders, their investors, and the annual increase in profits they demand.

This will continue— under the endless bombardment of the consumer and technical spectacle that constantly reminds us that consumption is our mandate— until our expansion and consumption are greatly reduced.

Naomi Kline further illustrates this in her article, Capitalism vs. the Climate. She writes that the “roots of the climate crisis [are] globalization, deregulation and contemporary capitalism’s quest for perpetual growth”. She goes on to say that our solutions lie in “radically reordering our economic and political systems”.

The earth is demanding this of us. We must, as Klein points out, create “a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal”.

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows states something in the very first pages that deeply resonates with me. The author says that environmental degradation, among all the injustices and atrocities that plague our world, will succumb to our efforts to eradicate them only when we “see the system as the source of its own problems.” We can, and will invoke true changes to this system, only if we “find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.”

I look around at some of the people I know—and many people I don’t—and I see this happening, this restructurization. But what exactly is being done? In what actions do we place our courage and wisdom? It seems to be a very involved process, a system of actions. Actions that come from a continual and knowledgeable discourse. Actions that include both the collective and individual.

It involves the relocalization of production; it involves, as Desmond Tutu says, for us “to act like global citizens, not as isolated consumers”; it involves consuming food that is locally and organically produced; it involves purchasing goods that are environmentally friendly and ethically manufactured; it involves planning; it involves thinking not for convenience sake, but for collective sake; it involves exposing the fantasy of continual economic expansion and dismantling the corporate structure; it involves fashioning a more inclusive economic system, that doesn’t widen the gap, but brings strength and dignity to the workforce which drives it; it involves reshaping our transit infrastructure to facilitate the carbon neutral efforts of the individual, of the collective of those individuals; it involves bicycles and blue bins; it involves enormous amounts of research and the funding research requires; it involves participatory democracy; it involves reviving the commons, strengthening the community; it involves identifying and trusting the experts; it involves discourse, listening, and patience. Oh, yes, it involves you.

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2 Responses to A System of Collective Individuals

  1. avatar Daniel says:

    Great intro!
    “and Winnipeg has been recycling” – not everyone knows this city or that you are from there, so make it more clear why you are referencing it.
    ” that our answer begins…” – the word solution might be more appropriate
    Do you think that environmentally friendly people and their actions helps create additional environmentally friendly people (word of mouth, seeing other people contribute etc)?
    “and Klein points out…” -> as Klein…
    I’d suggest ending with your own words and not a quote.
    In the second last paragraph you’ve introduced the topic of organic agriculture without really backing it up or supporting it.
    I don’t really have many more suggestions – the post was very well written.

  2. avatar Sean says:

    Thanks for the comments Daniel, duly noted and appreciated.

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