Individual Virtue Vs. Collective Success, or Why Environmentalists Must Take Political Action

Image credit: Monty Python

When it comes to environmentalism, the crowd in Monty Python's classic (if blasphemous) Life of Brian may have had a point. While we may all be individuals, it is in the collective sum of our actions that the success or failure of the environmental movement will be judged. So why are we all so focused on the personal?

Brian: You're ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!
Brian: You're all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I'm not...From carbon footprinting through recycling to becoming No Impact Man, there's no doubt that much of the environmental movement's efforts go toward promoting individual virtue and personal change as a path to a greener society.

On one level, I have no problem with that. As I argued in my post on sweating the small stuff, if we approach each little eco-habit with the right attitude, they can be a useful reminder of the collective change that we need to make. But do we approach them with the right attitude?

I am always amazed by the number of environmentalists I know who will spend hours nagging friends or relatives about the use of tote bags, or never buying bottled water, yet ask them what they have done on a political level lately and they look at you blankly. Sometimes they even reject political action all together, claiming that the powers that be are too corrupted, and vested in the status quo, for us to affect change. They argue that the only real change will happen locally, and sometimes they fall back on the old favorite cliche: "the personal is political."

Sorry folks, but I for one can't help feeling that that is a cop out. Yes, what we do on a personal level matters. Yes, societies are nothing more than a collection of individuals. And yes, if you spend your days shaving off every last gram of CO2 from your carbon footprint, it will go some way toward mitigating the damage being done by others. But unless we change the rules on the playing field to accurately reflect the ecological realities we live in, personal virtue and individual action will remain nothing more than a balm on our own personal consciences while we watch the ecosystems we all rely on falling apart.

The trick, I think, is to combine the personal with the political. It's to use our own personal actions to demonstrate that other ways of doing things are possible, and then leverage them to make those actions more likely by others. That might mean writing to politicians to ensure politics doesn't destroy climate legislation, it might mean taking to the streets to demand that the unmitigated disaster currently occurring in the Gulf of Mexico never happens again, or it might just mean organizing with your neighbors as a Transition Town to ensure your individual actions create a wider cultural shift.

I'm not arguing that individual action doesn't count. I'm just saying that individual impact is not the correct unit for measuring environmental success. So next time we all take steps to green our wedding, compost our corpse, or bike to work, let's not let it be an end in itself. Instead, let's reflect on strategies—be they cultural, political or personal— that will make it more likely that others will do the same.

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