How to Change the World

Possibly, the changes we perceive most easily are those that cause societies some sort of trauma.

We perceive change when it happens all at once, in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima, or the rising of the Arab Spring. When structures suddenly collapse, and a catastrophe or an event stands out with striking clarity, our perception of time and our sense-making gets overturned. This tear in the fabric of time is obvious proof of change, and the people involved in such events will undeniably feel that the world can not be the same after.

But what about changes that don’t create tears, that build up and progress in less noticeable ways and will express themselves over the course of years and decades before they bubble up to the surface? The same way that sometimes we don’t notice we have grown until the clothes that used to fit us perfectly are now two sizes too small.

I’ve experienced these changes in myself in slight alterations – for example regarding my reactions to people and environments I had once been used to. Start repairing all your clothes and getting what you need second hand, and a stroll through a shopping mall will seem bizarre to you.

Similarly, I used to enjoy watching John and Hank Green ramble on their youtube channel vlogbrothers. Today, watching the same videos, they more often make me feel a stab of disappointment. Rating: not radical enough.

What Hank and John like to stress is that everything is not as bad as it seems, or, changing for the better: Child mortality rates are sinking, poverty is declining, levels of literacy are rising. If Capitalism can do all that, it’s not such a bad model after all, is it [1]? We’re making sure everyone gets a piece of the cake. No need to panic. Other people are working on it.

Recently, I’ve begun to feel that this line of thinking does more to support the status quo than it helps to bring about actual change. That Hank and John, in their efforts to calm people down and by stressing that other smart humans are going to figure out how to solve the climate crisis, unequal economies, and other issues, they are effectively excusing themselves and their audience from action. Capitalism is not going to be solved by a few smart people working on it, since those who are smart and privileged enough will never try to change a system that works to their advantage. Competition, private ownership and the maximisation of profit are all central characteristics of Capitalism. They design winners and losers, large wage gaps, and the exploitation of the environment in the name of profit and economic growth.

Let’s get back to this cake that everyone wants a piece of. Let’s call it the Capitalist Wealth Cake: it has 10 pieces, one currently belongs to 99% of the population. The other nine pieces are owned by the richest 1%. In Capitalism, growth is necessary in order to not have to redistribute wealth. If you can make the whole cake bigger, most of the population will not get a larger percentage of the cake, but they will get a bigger slice, and feel like things are getting better, even though the 1% still own 99% of the cake [2]. We do see this improvement in child mortality rates sinking, poverty declining, levels of literacy rising. But this kind of growth does nothing to combat inequality or tackle the climate crisis.

In reality, global capitalism has made it possible for us to outsource exploitation to other countries and social levels. Middle-class Germans can easily afford buying new shirts every week, something that would have been unthinkable 60 years ago. But rarely do we look at what makes fast fashion this cheap and accessible for us [3] (and rarely do we question what we would even need so many clothes for).

It is not a coincidence we often find immigrants working in less desirable jobs. This is also an issue of Feminism: white women may now often be free to work and have children, but many do so by hiring a housekeeper, thus merely shifting the disadvantage to another group of women.

But we have to consume! If we don’t, production will decrease, unemployment will rise. The cake will not grow and we will be doomed.

Capitalism doesn’t allow for individual companies to give up growing, competition will see to that. But it’s also impossible to disconnect economic growth from the draining of resources [4]. Thus, an economy based on endless growth is unsustainable.

How to change the world

When I talk to people about these issues they often try to counter by referring back to the wealth cake. “It’s not me who has to change their lifestyle. It’s the 1% who are in charge. They are the ones fucking this world over. They have to stop using up the planet’s resources and start making policies that protect the environment rather than exploit it further.”

Yes. I agree. But it’s useless to hold billionaires and policy makers to these standards if we’re not willing to hold ourselves to the same ones. Often, the ideologies and motivations for our lifestyles are about the same, they just get more destructive the more power and money are involved. Meaning: If we put different people in power, they would make the exact same mistakes.

With great power comes great responsibility, but we need to stop seeking responsibility solely elsewhere and stop excusing ourselves from action.

Paul Goodman famously wrote, “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!”[5]

It’s also an overused Ghandi quote, but the change has to come from each of us, individually, if we are to change the way our societies think and make decisions. Then, what we may end up with is a kind of snowball-effect – you start talking to your friends about all the cool new ways you have discovered on how to live more sustainably, and suddenly, you have a horde of excited newcomers following you on nightly dumpster-dives.

But change is not always this obvious. As Rebecca Solnit notes, it’s easy to despair quickly if you keep waiting for The Revolution, that moment when you’ll be able to stop fighting, come home and reap the fruits of your hard work.

Total victory has always seemed like a secular equivalent of paradise: a place where all the problems are solved and there’s nothing to do, a fairly boring place. The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that has arrived in innumerable ways, small and large and often incremental, but not in that way that was widely described and expected. [5]

Victory, she says, may occur in bursts of humanness and solidarity during disasters that bring us closer together. Victory is already there. It’s being lived in the experiments of alternative communities springing up across the planet. In the squatting scene, in protest camps, in villages in Hungaria organised around alternative currency [6].

Yet people often seem hell bent on convincing each other, and themselves, that it’s hopeless. That try as you might, nothing ever really changes, anyway. In her 2004 book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit attempts to list a few select forgotten victories – to make us aware that things do change, and to disarm our excuses for refusing to act.

Personally, when confronted with the status quo assumption that it has always been this way, humans are inherently selfish, Capitalism is the natural order of things and bleeblabloo, I like to point out that if not for the countless and ongoing victories of Feminism, I would not be sitting here today, engaging in this discussion. Moreover, an insistence on the status quo dishonours the tremendous effort and sacrifices of people who came before us – women who underwent hunger strikes and public ridicule for the following generations to be able to vote, humanitarians striving to end slavery and torture, activists engaged in protecting the very resources we need to live. The uncounted and the nameless.

Whether this narrative sounds inspiring or demoralising may solely depend on our definition of heroism. Is it important to be known, by name, for some great deed? Is it important to have directly visible results of the change we wish to see in the world? Does it have to be global? Or is it enough to change ourselves, little by little, and to inspire friends and loved ones to do the same?

What gives me hope are those alternative communities, the places where hope is being actively produced, where we do not have to fight alone.

How to change ourselves

In Germany, one of these communities gathers annually: the resistance against fossil fuels. Countless activists are protesting against the opencast lignite mines destroying the Rheinland region and the disastrous effects of coal energy on global climate.

At Climate Camp, people come together to share knowledge about sustainability in classes on degrowth and workshops like urban gardening, repair cafés, food sharing, and also to practice non-violent communication and to explore alternative ways of democratically organising large numbers of people.

20562127872_18b15a31fe_z
via flickr

There’s not just the notion of what you can do to change your life. It’s impossible to expect you’re going to solve all the world’s problems by yourself. You might start to fix your own clothes or buy from fair, organic sellers, after you’ve discovered how the fashion industry works. After you’ve looked into mass animal farming, you might start to eat vegetarian or vegan. You could stop booking flights or ditch your car. You could sign up for green energy.

But what do you do once you realise that the oil industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change? And that plastic is made out of oil? That every time you go grocery shopping, oil is the thing wrapping your tomatoes, your vegan chocolate bars, your super organic bio-pasta?

You might begin to feel there are just too many things to pay attention to. That the world is too large, the issues too many, the mountain of tasks too high to tackle. But it’s not a contest, and change can be fun and most importantly meaningful, if you can find others to support you in your endeavour [7].

You can’t boycott the world. Well, technically you can. But it’s not gonna make the world much better for us to opt out entirely. What could make the world a little better is if we came together as a society to say: Look, this is what we care about. We have some ideas on how to solve it, and we’re damn well going to focus all our resources on making those ideas count.

Most of us don’t have a plastic-free supermarket [8] around or an opportunity to grow their own tomatoes. That’s not the reality we live in. So we also need to push politics into taking action, not only to make living sustainably easier, but to make it really damn hard to live unsustainably.

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via flickr

 

One step is to put an end to coal energy. Fast. For this purpose, activists will gather at the Climate Camp in the Rheinland to once again occupy the lignite mines, diggers, and other coal infrastructure with actions of mass civil disobedience such as Ende Gelände.

The German Climate Camp will be held from August 18 – 29.

 


[1] http://fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com/post/7301474092/hey-lets-redefine-capitalism-part-1 

[2] Also interesting to think about: Imagine you own one piece of cake. On the other side of the table, there he sits, the fabled Man™, with nine pieces of cake on his plate. If every piece of cake, by some miraculous economic growth magic, gains 10 grams of mass, The Man™ now finds he has 90 grams more cake. Each of his individual pieces has increased its weight by 10 grams. Since you only own one piece, you only gain 10 grams. So economic growth still profits those in power the most. Weird, isn’t it?

[3] Watch “The True Cost” for more information about how fast fashion works

[4] http://www.postwachstum.de/die-gute-nachricht-kapitalismus-ohne-wachstum-gibt-es-nicht-20140606

[5] Solnit, Rebecca – Hope in the Dark

[6] I heard about this from two Hungarians: People in their village carry a notebook that notes down their balance, which is calculated in work hours, to create radical equality and support local trade and manufacture. 1 minute of work = 1 currency unit.

[7]  Practice sustainable activism. Set yourself a date to think about picking an additional issue. Don’t get discouraged! There are, unfortunately, people who use issues x, y, z to make themselves feel superior to anyone who isn’t involved in the same issues and try to shame others for leading different lives. Key to building a strong community is to acknowledge that we are all on the same path, and that leading by example is a much stronger tool for getting people interested in your cause, not alienating them by making them feel bad about themselves.

[8] Plastic free supermarkets in Germany: https://utopia.de/ratgeber/verpackungsfreier-supermarkt/

 

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