So what do we do? That’s the question—right?—when it comes to climate change. We know the problems. We even know the scientific solution: lowering atmospheric carbon to 350 parts per million.
Our obstacle is, in many ways, whether we in the United States have the cultural and political will to adopt the scientific solution. Because trying to pursue it presents a huge social obstacle. How do we learn to use fewer resources when our entire economy is built on using more?
The low-hanging fruit in climate change is energy efficiency—finding ways to use less. And here in these United States, because energy has been so cheap, our inefficiencies are grand. Fixing them might mean such massive cultural shifts as a lower reliance on automobiles and even—though it is still almost fringe to say it—a move away from a system that depends upon consumption for consumption’s sake.
So what do we do when the problem is so big that it might only be solved if the entire nation is involved?
We engage the entire nation. We ask the people to be involved in finding the solutions to their own problems.
Think of World War II. Like climate change, it was a problem that could not be solved without the engagement of everyone. Thousands of political and cultural leaders recognized that. They saw that while top-down government action could promote individual dedication to the war effort, it was individual, bottom-up action that could rally the people around broader government action.
Today, we recall how soldiers left their farms, jobs, and families to enlist, and how, at home, parents grew food in “victory gardens” and folks volunteered to run scrap drives for rubber and steel. Think of the people who carpooled not because it was cheaper but because, as one public service poster said, “When you drive alone, you drive with Hitler.”
Citizens united around a solution, and the government pressed forward, secure in having the will of the people.
Climate is like that, too. If individuals can be inspired to change their lives to help propel the necessary cultural shift, then it is likely that more and more of them will lend their political will to government action that supports their individual efforts.
How, though, do we engage the people?
What we tend to remember from the World War II era are the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation. What was perhaps more important, though, was their aspiration and ambition. People did not rally to the moan of sacrifice but to the call for victory. Heroic leaders at every level helped them understand that, by working together, they could be more. The world could be more. Our lives could be more.
We must strive for that era’s ambition and aspiration, the deeply held belief that each person’s efforts matter. Back then, people envisioned a better world, and they felt confident that how they chose to live their lives could contribute to it.
The environmental movement should do the same. Environmental organizations concerned with climate change largely devote their resources to lobbying for good policies and to massive collective actions demonstrating support for those policies. And we need that. But why not also engage people in individual change, and rally them, World War II-style, to support the ways of living that those policies encourage?
Let’s urge people to think deeply about the purpose of their own lives, and whether our current culture enables those purposes.
Are we as happy as we could be, living in a system based on the idea that people are best served by ever-increasing spending and material and energy use? Might we not be happier if our system emphasized health, happiness, and security? Might we not be happier if it emphasized the joys, for example, we get out of spending time with the people we love and using our highest God-given talents? Might we not be happier in a system where doing what we believe is right is rewarded more than looking out for number one?
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What if environmental organizations shifted their resources just slightly from the halls of Congress to the sidewalks of the people? What if we engaged people in these questions and encouraged in them an ambition toward a better way of life? What if we took on these priorities for ourselves whether we’re encouraged to or not?
Sadly, it is currently out of vogue to discuss the importance of individual action in the environmental movement. The idea that an individual can’t make a difference ignores the mechanics of social change. Individuals, acting together, can shift the culture and bring about the political change we need.
How can we all be part of the change? Would riding your bike or walking to work be a more fun way to live life? Would getting together to sing at Christmas be better than paying off credit card bills for presents no one wants? In other words, we can be part of this change by inspiring ourselves to look, on a wide scale, for ways of life that are better both for us and for our planet.
To that end, a small group of us have established NoImpactProject.org, an organization with a mission to empower citizens to make choices that improve their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action, and participation in environmental politics. Through the No Impact Project’s joint effort with the Huffington Post, in October more than 4,700 people tried it for a week. But this is just one effort. We need more.
Sound radical? Perhaps, but no more radical than the thought that individuals growing their own veggies and sharing rides to work could help achieve victory during a world war. And perhaps, if we join together to solve our climate problems, we may just find a way to better lives for all of us at the same time.