Systemic Change or Solo Initiatives? BOTH.

In the past week, I have encountered and been a part of three discussions that have pitted different levels of action, such as policy-level action and personal actions, against each other as if one is wrong and one is right. I have a serious problem with this dichotomy, and have summarized the specific discussions, along with my thoughts, below.

We need to engage people if we are to make the changes that need making within the next decade.

Twitter is a scary place.

After I retweeted suggestions Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez gave to teens at a school event touching on sustainability and climate change, I received a bunch of replies and retweets calling out her suggestions of “eat one meat-free meal” and “skip disposable razors” as actions ranging from worthless, to dangerous. Fear that teens would encounter malnutrition if they skipped meat for a meal. Shock that anyone would recommend razors to children (teens) and many comments telling her these options were poor recommendations – get out and vote (teens?)! One of the most rigorous replies asked for proof that “behavior change” has any result in needed emissions reductions. The respondent went on to say that this is a zero sum game and that the “energy and good intentions of people should be directed in way that are likely to be fruitful, let alone relevant.” There was also a statement that individual actions mean nothing as we need to affect great changes in aggregation.

We need to engage people if we are to make the changes that need making within the next decade. We need policy and programs affecting broad, systemic change as well. One does not negate the other, in fact, the broad actions will be easier to implement and even to legislate (if legislation is needed) when commitment and understanding at personal level already exists throughout the community affected by the policy. In addition, if there are no small successes to aggregate, where will we be?

Wouldn’t it be better to deride the wasteful energy practices that exist out there, rather than condemn my personal attempts to produce some of the energy I myself use?

Facebook is another frightening realm.

Even on the sites working diligently toward change, and engaging participations and focus, people get defensive about what is worthy of discussion/support, and what is not. One post, on a FB site devoted to discussions about Project Drawdown, included an article about people powering their homes with a personal, mechanical bicycle-like rig. The headline touts that “60 minutes on this bike can power your home for 24 hours…” which is true if your home is comparable to a small house in rural India. I said “I’m in” and received a rush of comments in response, culminating in “we don’t have time to waste on things that have no practical effect” and disparaging the ineffectiveness and waste of time leading to the future when we will all perish while foolishly claiming “I did my part to raise awareness to fight climate change”. The focus of these comments was that some “solutions” (in quotes in the comments) can be counter-productive. Hmmm.

If we were anywhere near saturation of effort at any level, I might have to agree that we need to focus. At this point, however, very, very far from that possibility of saturation, I see any action that helps us to understand our energy use, and the magnitude of personal effort that represents even one KwH of electricity, to be beneficial to engagement, and thereby to action at a large scale.

Even if this engagement does not go further than the personal action, what is the detriment? If I choose to pedal on a bicycle-like mechanism and generate enough electricity to be able to watch a movie, carbon-free, in my home, or light my dining table light for an hour or two, how is this dangerous to our planet-wide success? Wouldn’t it be better to deride the wasteful energy practices that exist out there, rather than condemn my personal attempts to produce some of the energy I myself use? I see it as incredibly dangerous to dampen, in any way, anyone’s enthusiasm to do better.

I am thinking, as we all should, instead of reacting.

I work with many intelligent, dedicated, responsible people, in my “day job” and in advocacy, education, committee work, and speaking engagements. I learn from them nearly every day.

The last instance I am struggling with more, and it is challenging me. It is in regard to the limited attention span of our federal legislative bodies, the Green New Deal, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. I am usually a “bring it all” kind of person. I learn from nature, and she is diverse, adaptive, redundant, team-focused, and systems-based, which all point me to the notion that we should have a Green New Deal AND the Carbon Dividend Act. We will benefit greatly from a transformative and broadly applicable framework of actions and a structure that is adaptive and informed by ongoing efforts, a structure that includes funding, workforce training, attention to agriculture and transportation. We also need a price on carbon to create the powerful market signals that can make the engines of economy work toward the right goals. Yes, these can both exist and can support each other well.

But then the comments came, and though my sensibilities say “why not both?” my logical mind begins to recognize the limits of the moment.

The reality is that our federal government is likely not capable of embracing these both at the same time. The Carbon Dividend Act is simple, clear, and fairly complete, has bi-partisan support, and would send strong and signals throughout the nation, while the Green New Deal is not supported by both parties, needs more time in development, or a structure that can flex, and is less defined as well as fearfully broad for many, (though I see this as a positive aspect). Understanding context, this may not be the time to say that everything works, and everything is needed. Will we create confusion, or diminish the capacity of Congress to fully embrace one of these if we push for both? It makes my brain, and my heart, hurt, for we truly need them both, and more, but we may need to unite with some focused expectations in order to put the fossil fuel industry, in particular, and manufacturing and business, as a whole, on the path we know we need, now, with carbon valuation that will inform and drive action.

And this is where Twitter and Facebook, shared media reports, and real conversations between real, respectful people, curious about our present and future, can be valuable. I am thinking, as we all should, instead of reacting. I am processing, asking questions and providing information that I have, as well as sharing my experiences and my knowledge. I am pleased when I am heard, and I am also pleased (though sometimes sheepish) when I learn something that changes my approach, my ideas, my efforts, my position.

I ended one of the discussions with a Twitter post that wrapped up…”and we need all of us – so you keep doing the good work you are doing and I’ll keep doing the good work I am doing. Someday we’ll meet in the middle in a better world.”

And I truly believe that.


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