40. How to start?

Ch 40

So how might I start?

This chapter is addressed particularly to those people in the affluent world who might feel they need to do something, but are not sure how to get started.

This uncertainty may well be compounded by uncertainty about what’s the right thing to do.  There are so many competing voices out there that it’s increasingly difficult to know which voices to trust.  So I want to briefly address the issue of trust in this chapter.

The uncertainty might also be compounded by worry about what others will think.  Those who raise issues such as climate change in conversation will be very familiar with the glazing or rolling of eyes, or the turning away, or the immediate vehement reaction of denial, of many of their fellows.  It takes courage to confront this.  I will also briefly address this issue below.

There is a series of steps which you can take to begin to contribute to a better and less self-destructive world.  They are in a suggested sequence below, roughly from easier to harder, but there is nothing sacred about the sequence.  And if you have taken some or all of them already, please feel free to just skip past the headers!

Working from and with our values

First, what we always need to do is work from the values and principles we hold – never abandon them unless we have been convinced that they were wrong.  If we compromise our deepest values by our actions, we compromise ourselves as humans.  And we should expect to feel pain.  The ends never justify the means.

And one thing that we should do as part of this is work on clarifying our values and principles.  To some, just debating what freedom or equality are is enough – they enjoy the intellectual contest.  To some others, such debates are sterile, and what they need is action.  These are inadequate extremes – debate without action is sterile, and action without debate is mindless.  But there are many intermediate positions which are perfectly functional.

George Lakoff strongly makes the point that progressives are neither clear enough with each other about what their shared values are, nor forceful enough in public debate to combat the conservatives[i].  So, in the United States, the conservatives can take a stranglehold on the language of “freedom” (ie “freedom to”) and “family values” (ie the “strict father” model) because the progressives are not able to express their values coherently and explicitly enough (of “freedom both from and to”, and the “nurturant parent” model).

So, with that introduction, let’s take steps.

Step 1 – act in a greener way

The first step is to make sure you’re doing all those basic environmentally friendly things which we have been told we should do for years: recycle, separate out and reuse green waste if you can, stop using plastic bags, use energy efficient light bulbs and reduce energy use generally, insulate your home, make the effort to take public transport or to walk or cycle rather than using a car whenever you have the opportunity, and so on.

Changing to an energy efficient lightbulb may seem a small and futile thing to do.  But just as large corporations depend on mass markets to make profits, so too can progressives depend on mass actions to have an effect.  If you are typical of a hundred, a thousand, a million people, something has changed.  And if you influence others to change their lightbulbs, you have started a movement.

None of these actions is controversial, and they require little effort or cost – indeed, there may very well be financial and health gains from them.  The cumulative effect of many of us doing these things is useful, and it also helps us reground us in the virtues of thrift.

One good way to look at your consumption habits is by going to footprintcalculator.org, which helps you calculate your own “footprint” on the planet, and gives suggestions for reducing it.  It is set up for a limited number of countries (my own country, New Zealand, is not represented, for example), but that doesn’t stop you doing the calculations.  I did it using an Australian state as my “home”, and found it very useful.

We are in a society which encourages more use of things, not less, and we each need to start pushing back against this.  While we are reducing our personal footprints on the planet.

We also need, as part of this, to start work on how we can reduce our own, individual, externalisation of costs.  The eventual aim is to reduce our real individual waste to nothing – following the course of Nature and the dictum of tramping groups (“Take out what you took in”).  But as long as we are dependent on suppliers who make this difficult (for example, through plastic packaging, and refusing to take responsibility for the full life-cycle of products), we are limited in how far we can take this.

Step 2 – find people with whom you can discuss these issues

If you’re anything like me, you normally move in circles which have a significant personal and intellectual investment in the current system.  Even if you’re not, you may still be surrounded by people who are not ready to discuss these issues.

You need to find fellow-travellers (yes, I know this term is normally associated with the Communist Party, but I hereby reclaim it on behalf of the progressives of this world).  People with whom you can debate issues, share concerns, and discover – very rapidly – that you are not alone in some of your concerns and reactions to the current situation.

I found Kari Norgaard’s book “Living in Denial”[ii] compelling reading about the problems of everyday life in the affluent world.  I referred to it back in chapter 23.  She found that people conspired to avoid the deeper issues, out of mixed feelings of helplessness, guilt, and “being a bad person”.  It wasn’t that they didn’t actually believe in or care about climate change – it was just that they wanted to avoid it – too big, too scary, and they didn’t want to admit they were complicit in it.

Well, if you’re one of the readers I’m mainly addressing, and you’ve got this far in the book, you’ve probably gone a fair way to admitting your complicity.  And one of the best ways to move on from that point is to find safe places to share your concerns and uncertainties.

Ask around – you’ll find them soon enough.  Norgaard notes that, at that time, there was no group in the town she was studying dedicated to climate change issues, even peripherally.  I hope that’s no longer true in that town, and I’m certain you are not the only person in your own community who wants and needs to discuss these things.

Step 3 – understand that you’re not helpless

If you’ve taken steps 1 and 2, you’ve already proved that you’re not helpless on these things.  You may be a very small player, doing very small things, but you are in the game.  And there are many millions in the game on your side.

The underlying issue is not that we, individually, are helpless, but that if we succumb to the feeling of helplessness and stay out of the game, then we leave our power to be taken by the people who are currently winning.  And believe me, they will take it.

The draft “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities” actually addresses this issue head on – it says we have a moral imperative to overcome our feelings of helplessness (and our ignorance). Principle 8 states that:

“No-one is exempt from his or her responsibility for reasons of helplessness if he or she did not make the effort of uniting with others, nor for reasons of ignorance if he or she did not make the effort of becoming informed”.

Small size or just being one among hundreds or thousands or millions are not excuses for not acting.  The previous New Zealand government made a habit of saying we are “too small to make a difference” on matters such as climate change.  Apart from the moral imperative, what if everyone else felt the same way and did nothing?

And individuals always make a difference as individuals.  From having the idea which changes the world, to making the pot of tea which gives a person a break which clarifies their mind before they give the hint to someone who says something to someone else who writes a note which is picked up in another forum and eventually gets to a person in whom it helps seed the idea which changes the world, we all make a difference.  We may never have any idea of the difference we have made, but we will have made it.

A final word on helplessness.  There are two important forms of helplessness for our purposes here. The first is the problem of feeling that you are “a small cog in a big wheel”, which I have mostly focussed on to date.  Two responses to this which I have already expressed in other words – (A) you ARE a cog, and therefore important; and (B) if many small cogs start pushing in one direction, eventually the bigger cogs can be pushed to change their direction.

The second type of helplessness is a more insidious effect of the current system – learned helplessness as a result of the choices we are faced with.  At the puerile end of the spectrum, this is about five types of petrol (all from the same source) or ten different types of soap (all largely the same).  The effort we put into these choices is at least 90% wasted effort, and it often leaves us uncertain about our choices, and even unable, eventually, to make them.

At the more important end of the spectrum are choices about such matters as charitable giving (who to give to?) and action on climate change (which group to join? where to start?).  Here, too, we face the dilemma of too many choices, leading to a sense of helplessness and, in this case, sometimes choosing to take no action.

If we don’t act, we can’t make the difference.  Worse, we have left space for others to make differences we don’t agree with.

Step 4 – deal with the issue of “who to trust?”

As I said above, there are so many competing voices out there that it’s increasingly difficult to know which voices to trust.  If you follow health and diet advice, you’ll know what I mean.  Different foods at different times are “proved” to be good for your health/bad for your health.  Completely opposing diets are touted as the next best solution to the life-critical mission of getting to look like Twiggy.

There are two useful things to learn from this.  First, science isn’t always as advanced as we think it is (and yes, I know you can say that about “climate science” – but you can’t say it about retreating glaciers, rising ocean levels and temperatures, degrading environments, or rising rates of species extinction), so we need to apply suitable precautionary principles.  In this particular case, there is a simple and effective precautionary principle – moderation – don’t eat or drink too much, and eat and drink from a good range, but don’t each or drink too much of one thing.  Moderation, by the way, does not include Supersizing.

Second, it is always difficult to know what or whom to trust.  Mainstream media often misdescribe the underlying science, and draw conclusions from it that the scientists themselves would not support; alternatively, they could simply be reporting bad science.  Fox News makes a speciality of both of these activities.  And diet promoters may have a range of motives, from genuine interest in your good health through to simple profit.

For me, trust is an outcome, not an underlying value.  Trust is what grows out of human solidarity.  It is a bond between people, built from mutual support, which enables us to work both together, and independently, in better ways.  Looked at another way, trust is built by keeping our promises – by being reliable in what we do and say, and by being seen repeatedly to have been at least sincere and preferably correct and effective in the things we have done or said.

The current market society is trying to replace mutual trust with “incentives”, by which they mean the purchase of service or loyalty.  Trust is an expression of mutuality, incentives are an expression of hierarchy and separation.

The market society is going further and further into contracts, into fine print, and into “let the buyer beware” – just look at the software or user license agreements you “Agree to” on your phone or computer.  The buyer-seller relationship is replacing mutual agreement with legal exit clauses.  And the seller and the lawyer are the ones who profit from this.

But the world mostly works still on trust – and it is amazing how much trust there still is, despite the social Darwinist nonsense of the current dominant narrative.  The fact that trust still exists is one of the things that gives me hope – our pact of mutual support still exists, and can revive and be strengthened.

However, we are also in this world of competing voices.  Ideally, each of us would do enough research to draw our own conclusions on issues, or at least to check the bona fides of the presenter, if we were uncertain about what we were being told.

That’s what I’ve been able to do since retirement – as my son-in-law Andrew said to me, “You’ve done the research and become your own ‘trusted voice’ – and that is a powerful thing to do”.  I know that I’m bound to be getting it wrong on some matters of detail, but I am confident that the preponderance of evidence I have seen so far supports my statements and the conclusions I have drawn.  And, I trust myself enough to continue to seek disconfirming evidence and to know that if I see it, I will do my best to be open to changing my views.

In fact, there are many things in this book that I would love to be proved wrong about.

But, in our time-deficient “affluent” world, many of us do not have the leisure to do this to any extent.  There are things we can do however.  For example, learning not to distrust on sight – first impressions are NOT always an accurate guide, particularly if they are based on “otherness”.

Or learning not to distrust on the basis of a single action.  Actions are often misinterpreted – if we feel, but are not certain, that we have been misled or exploited, we need to have the courage to check whether this is the case.  If we find out we were right (we were misled or exploited), we know who we can distrust!  But if we find out we were wrong, we have taken a step towards trust.

We need to beware of fixed views, rigidity, and absolutism.  These stances are generally associated with “my way or the highway”, rather than with mutuality of purpose and willingness to keep promises.  By and large, we are more likely to be able to trust people or writings which present multiple viewpoints or sides of an argument, and try to leave us with discretion to form our own conclusions.

Linked to this, proposals which are irreversible, or degrading or lethal to humans or the environment, are generally coming from people we shouldn’t trust.  Irreversibility is another form of “my way or the highway”, and degrading or lethal behaviour is the use of power for completely wrong purposes.

We also need to be careful about people who are strident.  Yes, I know this book has become increasingly strident as it has gone on, but I hope I haven’t breached the limits of common decency too often.  The point is that we shouldn’t just listen to the person who shouts the loudest.  They may be acting simply out of a sense of frustration (“No one is listening to me!”), or they may be coming from those fixed views I referred to in the earlier paragraph.

And, in our reading, we need to take everything with a grain of salt – including those words which accord most with our own views.   There is a risk in trusting too much.  We mostly only hear those things which fit with our own frames, and cannot hear, or dismiss, things which do not.  Strangely enough, true trust should always have grains of scepticism in it.

Finally, our trust must always be conditional on our own values not being violated.  In the end, if all else fails, test what is being said or proposed against your own values.  Yes, our values are limited by our personal frames.  And yes, they need to be tested and challenged over time, rethought and refreshed.  But at any one time, they are our soundest guide to what or who we can trust.

Step 5 – trust yourself – use and build on your own strengths

There’s a balance you need to work with, between staying with what’s safe, and jumping off into the unknown (no, not leaping into the chasm, just doing something new).

In “The Change Masters”, Rosabeth Moss Kanter used a three word heading which has stuck with me for thirty years, “Change requires stability”.  She was referring to the idea that, if you wanted to make effective change in an organisation, then you needed to help people find a safe place to stand – a point or points of stability from which they can cope with the new.

Some people are naturals at change – it is their thrill, their pleasure.  These can often also be the people who can’t handle the status quo, who keep pushing against it, who keep changing jobs or seeking change.  They’re both a curse – “stop messing things around”, and a blessing – “we would fossilise without you”.  They carry their own personal stability with them.

But most of us find change harder to deal with.  And there is change coming, without a doubt.  Even if we stop using fossil fuels today, there will be a temperature rise of another half to one degree over the next few decades – and look how much the similar level of change we have already experienced has increased the turbulence of our weather patterns, and the scale of extreme weather events.  At the least, we will have to commit more resources to infrastructural resilience, and cope with more damage.  And it will be harder on us all.

And if we travel down the path of human solidarity, and commit to less destructive agricultural practices, restitution and redistribution, and so on, that will mean changes to our lifestyles over time.  But they will be better changes than if we don’t follow this path.

So, each of us needs to learn to cope better with change.  And what better way to do this than by being part of the change yourself?  By extending yourself in pursuit of the goal of mutual survival built on mutual support?

One thing you can do is start by contributing the things you are good at, in the spheres and at the levels you are good at.  Trust yourself, that you do have something to contribute, and offer it.  This is a stable place for you to start from.

And while doing this, try to build on and add to your strengths and skills.  Not only trust the strengths you have, but try to extend them.

By the way, if you’re not sure what your existing strengths are, try asking your friends and family – you may be very surprised by what they tell you, and pleasantly surprised at that.

Another thing is to take on some thing or things that you haven’t done before, and get outside your comfort zone.  If you feel you need it, find support to do this, partners or sounding boards, so you can check that you haven’t leapt too far, or are still on target.

But get used to doing and learning new things.  And learn to accept the discomfort that comes with this.  The rewards of learning or doing something new usually far outweigh the costs.

As I said earlier, who knows what effect that pot of tea you brewed will have?  At a bare minimum, you will have contributed to the goal of greater human solidarity, by doing something for others, quenching their thirst, and giving them a break.  And once you’ve brewed it, why not take the leap and learn to bake some scones to go with it next time?

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting here that we attempt to smother the world in scones.  I was using examples of simple but vastly undervalued actions as analogies for any actions we might take in pursuit of a better world for all.

Step 6 – engage in the types and levels of activism that suit you

Just above, I suggested you could start by contributing in the spheres and at the levels you were good at.  By “spheres”, I meant the sorts of areas of action that interest you, for example replanting beachfronts, or protesting fracking, or campaigning for legal change, or designing new economic systems.

The spheres range broadly from palliative activities (clean up work), through prefigurative activities (trying to build new options or possibilities) to challenging the status quo (confronting elements of the current system).  Which of these appeals to you most?  Which do you think has highest priority?  Where do you think you can contribute most effectively?

There is so much that needs to be done that you may feel overwhelmed by all the things that need attention.  If this is a concern, remember that there are millions of others like you trying to do something about our current situation, in all of the ways described above.  Do not focus on your possible inability to cover off everything that concerns you, but on what things you can be most useful at.  And which you can most enjoy.

And conversely, don’t agonise too long over where it is best to set to work.  This is an easy trap to fall into.  One person described his approach as “trying to find the small lever that will create the large change”.  First, it probably doesn’t exist (only millions of small levers will work; some will be the “straws that break the camel’s back”, but this will only be because of the millions of other straws that we have already loaded on).  And second, getting started will probably be your best way to learn more about what is likely to be effective and what isn’t.

On the other hand, of course, you don’t have to confine yourself to just one area of activity.  Many people feel most comfortable doing things in more than one sphere (some clean up work, some new possibilities, perhaps some confrontation/protest).

By “levels of activism”, I meant from family to friends, local community, town, region, nation, international, to global levels.

One school of thought says you are most effective if you stay very close to home.  At its most extreme, “to change the world, change yourself”; more moderately, the focus on your immediate living situation and environment that is sometimes called “localism”.

There is an important truth behind this school of thought – that we need to rebuild our social, economic and governance structures from the bottom up, through highly democratic processes, if we are to build a learning and regenerative society.

And in my own view, activities at this level also fit people who are more family-minded and gregarious.  Taking more care of those near you, and working with your local community to improve it, are a natural fit for many people.

But there are two significant limitations in only working at this level.  First, following on from the last paragraph, such activities are not a natural fit for everybody.  There are also many of us who prefer to work more at the system and intellectual level than the personal – yes, there’s a certain sadness about this, but it remains true.  We just aren’t all “people people”, though it would probably, by and large, be a better world if we were.

Second, and more important, the current system will not be substantially changed or overthrown if we all just stay at a local level.  To change a large and complex system, we need to work at it at a deep level (if you doubt this, go back and reread what Donella Meadows has to say about system change in chapter 39).

And our future society will not be, and cannot be, just an accumulation of local solutions.  Many local solutions do not scale up (a key example of this is direct democracy), nor can they produce the sophisticated, multi-input goods and services that we are now used to and at least partially dependent on, nor, if implemented independently, can they be relied on to avoid the externalities which plague our current system (particularly pollution and passing costs on).

So, there is no doubt that we need to work at all levels of the current system, not just locally, but regionally, nationally, and globally.

And, as stated repeatedly before, the good news is that there are already many people and organisations working at all these levels.  So you are very likely have the opportunity to join others already working at the levels you would like to work at.

A sidebar about engagement with friends and acquaintances

In step 2, I suggested that you find people with whom it was safe to talk.  This sidebar is about avoiding the trap of just staying within that safe community, by getting into outreach.  Not just by shouting at the world in a protest, or doing your bit in isolation from others, but by finding ways to discuss and debate the issues with people whose minds are not yet closed to the possibility of a better world.  Not all will be comfortable doing this, but it is a key weapon in the armoury of change.

Don’t expect to persuade the deeply committed conservatives.  You won’t.  However, there can be a lot of value in listening to and arguing with them.  Working out the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, and finding accurate rebuttals, will stand you in good stead when you talk to people who might actually pay attention to you.

And, in fairness to them, don’t write the deeply committed conservatives off, either.  Your arguments will never convince them, but life events may.  Consider, for example, the deeply religious parents of children who turn out to be gay, in some cases turning their parents into champions of gay rights.

Your targets are the interested but inactive progressives, the uncommitted, and the reasonable but slightly conservative.  If you’re unsure where they stand, find out.

The first art is to actually get a conversation started.  As Norgaard points out, there are many barriers to this, and conversations once started can enter “dead zones” which effectively kill them off.  But you have to try.  There will be many opportunities – not a day now goes past without something related to these issues being reported somewhere in mainstream media.

The best way to get others engaged, of course, is by getting them to talk about their thoughts and/or feelings.  For example, “What did you think of [event x]?  How did it make you feel?”  And this gives you platforms to raise further questions about links to the current trends and issues.  And to (respectfully) add your own views.  For example, “I’ve read that…”, or “The science seems to be saying that…”

But you will need to practice, even with the uncommitted.  You will make mistakes, and find your arguments wanting.  The logic of system incompleteness tells us that all our positions are at best incomplete, and will usually contain contradictions, whether we are conservatives or progressives.

The key is not to give up, but to rethink, check your logic, abandon arguments or positions which are wrong or ineffective, and go in to bat again.  I’ve actually done well with a couple of unconvinced friends recently by retracting what I’d previously said, apologising, and offering better evidence and arguments.

Norgaard is very good on the types of barriers that are erected as part of the process of denial, and Lakoff is very good on both the content of debates about key issues, and on the process of engaging with conservatives (actually, most of the points he makes on “how to respond to conservatives” apply to the uncommitted as well).  Both are focussed on the specifics of the community they are observing (the small Norwegian town, and the United States), but their observations are mostly generally applicable.

So, if you’ve got to Step 6, you’re actively engaged in building a stronger movement for a better world.  Congratulations.

And thank you.

If you haven’t got that far, I’d like to thank you as well, for whatever you’ve done.

Many are at stages of their lives where the commitments of work and/or family can seem overwhelming, and just doing Step 1 – the recycling and all – can be a bit of a burden.  If that is where you are, I strongly encourage you to at least find some space or time to go to Step 2 – to start building a community of understanding about what is happening and how it might be changed.

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Footnotes (still to be tidied)
[i] In “The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant”

[ii] “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, And Everyday Life”, Kari Marie Norgaard, MIT Press, 2011