Or, Individual Action is Political Traction, and warning: some sadness
I got to interview the super sharp Dr. Kate Ervine last week, and she mentioned an idea in passing that I’ve been unable to put down. Because it’s perfect. It’s smart and obvious and yes I believe in the underpromise/overdeliver, but it’s just so simple and good that I’m bigging it up with gleeful abandon. DRUMROLL through a megaphone, pls...
Let’s reframe individual action as POLITICAL STRATEGY.
Because A) that’s what it is… and B) it sounds way more powerful and unimpeachable.
Refusing a straw isn’t a twee act of reduction. It’s a political act. That doesn’t suck.
Which is such an important reframing in a world where people constantly undermine individual action. Rebranding personal behaviour change as political strategy bakes in the upstream, collective goal.
My fave Twitter handle has got to be this guy’s:
Yes!! The fake battle between individual and systems change is such an unnecessary sideshow that we should dispense with as quickly as possible. We need them both. One begets the other. One is made up of the other. This is as basic as Gap clothes in the 1990s.
But individual action/personal behaviour change has been made to feel small and insubstantial, despite its catalytic power and ability to shift norms. It’s extra annoying that there’s a very distinct type of person (append the suffix ’SPLAINER to the end of their name and you know who I’m talking about) who usually diminishes the importance of individual action. Yes, 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s emissions. But also: Individual change is the beating heart of systems change.
So how to stop putting mason jars into a corner? Politicize them. “The personal is political” has always felt like a nice phrase on a button to me, and not a real, living way of seeing. But it truly is a political act to position yourself in opposition to a system, whether it’s a system that hurtles single-use cups at you, or one that forces you to buy only one form of power that happens to be dirtier than a pig in a puddle.
Pressing against these barriers is not exerting a twee green gesture, it is PUSHING THE SYSTEM TO CHANGE WITH YOUR DEAD COOL POLITICAL MICROMOVES.
You are also shifting norms. Said Dr. Ervine, who gave up flying to academic conferences: “My life is still rich and wonderful. Just because I can’t fly...it’s not a big sacrifice. We need to model what we need to see, but recognize that as political strategy and not consumer choice.”
When other profs see her not flying, they take note. When conference organizers see many profs not flying, they adapt accordingly by making the online conference experience better.
Though I’ve preached the gospel of individual action for years, it’s tiring. When the hoops are tortuous, you can feel silly. Remind me again why I’m going to so much trouble to do this small yet impossibly difficult thing that this world seems intent on not letting me do? Because it’s a POLITICAL ACT.
My 15 year-old self, knee-deep in cynicism and corduroy, would roil at the idea that everyday actions could be infused with the political, and I concede that rebranding personal environmental action might feel sloganeeringly pat. And even unhelpful if one’s political action starts and ends with refusing a straw. But I don’t think it ever does. And if we can bolster someone’s maiden steps on the ladder of environmental action by sliding them over to the realm of legitimate political exertions, why wouldn’t we?
How does this framing land with you? LMK
I wrote an OpEd in the Toronto Star last week on corporate efforts to start labelling more. Read it?
My parents live in Florida. Their very smart friends just bought and renovated a condo on the water. Every time I hear stuff like this, my ears fall off and float away at high tide. Which is why I more than loved this excellent essay, If Miami Will Be Underwater, Why is Construction Booming, by Sarah Millar. Funny, smart, insightful, and it’s read aloud by the wonderful Julia Louis Dreyfus. Such a great listen!
LET’S SKIP THE DANCING THIS WEEK
I can’t stop thinking about a beautiful 23 year-old in my neighbourhood who was killed while riding her bike last week. She loved riding her bike. She worked at a plant shop. She studied journalism. She was loved by her family. She was loved by everyone who knew her.
Every cyclist death is gutting but I guess this one is extra devastating because I see myself and my daughter and her curls and our lives in Alex. How often have we biked the exact same streets of our lovely neighbourhood?
I don’t know how many more times I can read a story about senseless bicycle deaths in our (un)fair city. We’ve known about this problem forever. Nothing ever changes. Despite the fact that we need cyclists. We need people riding bicycles everywhere in our city. As much as possible. For the sake of plants and planet. We need complete streets, and speeding enforcement, better design, and reduced car traffic. How can we still be talking about this in 2020? How can this still be happening?
I wanted to go to the ghost ride for Alex but though I’m an all-season biker I suddenly felt scared, delicate, impermanent. It was dark outside, and I wanted to hug my children in the warmth of my home. This is the cycle of fear that a city that doesn’t prioritize safety engenders. I’m so sorry for Alex’s family.
Have a beautiful, wonderful, safe, healthy week. Hug the people you love (if you can),
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