Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Which is More Important: Personal or Political Action?

Thoughts on this month's APLS Carnival with The Conscious Shopper

Recently, I was reading an interview on Grist with Annie Leonard of Story of Stuff fame, and there were two things she said that I found very interesting:
Q. What would you encourage people to do on an individual level?

A. People ask me that a lot, and I like to see where they are so I ask them, "What can you think of to do?" They say, "I can recycle. I can ride my bike more. I can buy organic. I can buy this instead of this." Really individual actions as opposed to, "I can work with my neighbors to shut down this toxic factory." We have a consumer part of ourselves and a citizen part of ourselves. And throughout this country's history, the citizen parts of ourselves have accomplished enormously wonderful things to make this country a better place. But in recent decades, I feel like the consumer part of ourselves is spoken to and validated and nurtured so much that we've over-identified with it and the citizen part of ourself has atrophied. We just need to start reinvigorating that citizen muscle. So the number one thing to do is to hook up with others who share your values and start making some real change.

Q. Has there been any stuff that's been difficult for you to give up or part with or not consume?

A. Not really, partly because I just don't really focus on the individual piece so much. I really don't fall into that camp where it's your fault because you left the water running when you brushed your teeth. So I just don't spend a lot of time around the guilt and the individual action stuff.
I often see this divide in the environmental world between advocates of personal versus political change, our consumer side versus our citizen side, and individual versus large-scale actions. Many encourage people to focus on small changes like changing their lightbulbs, while others say that those small changes don't matter and we should be focusing on broadscale changes of the entire system.

So for this month's APLS Carnival, I'm asking the questions:
  • Are personal changes too small to matter?
  • Should people who have full time jobs and kids and church responsibilities, etc. be expected to find time to organize their neighbors to shut down toxic factories?
  • Are people who do only the personal changes being lazy?
  • Are people who expect political changes to solve all of our problem pushing the blame on others instead of taking responsibility?
  • Is consumer action less important than citizen action, and vice versa?
  • Where's the balance?

Early on when I started going green, I would have said personal actions matter most for a variety of reasons. And I still believe that the actions that we as individuals take are extremely important. But the more "extreme green" I become, the more I realize that I can't do it all by myself.
  • Several times a week, I walk to pick up my son from school. Pushing my other two in a stroller to the school and back takes an hour and forty five minutes out of my day (including a short bus ride both ways). I'm so lucky to have that kind of time. Who else does??? Why, oh why, can't my city improve it's public transportation so I can take the bus more of the way?
  • I freakin' hate vermicomposting. I've tried to love it, I really have. The worms are fine, but I just cannot stand the fruit fly invasion of my home. Why, oh why, can't my city implement compost collection? I would so love to have someone haul off my food scraps every week so I can buy it back cheaply a few times a year.
  • Sometimes a girl just wants to be able to enjoy a nice evening out with her man without having to remember her own dishes or get completely stressed out about the harm her supposedly relaxed no-kids night off is doing to the planet. Not every night, but every now and then. Why, oh why, can't restaurants provide compostable to-go ware for those times when we forget our own kits? Like the Aldi system where you're supposed to bring your own bag, but if you forget, they have bags you can buy.
I'm not asking for businesses or the government to do all the work. I'm just asking them to meet me halfway. Or even 80/20.

This past Saturday, I spent the morning at a summit on community gardens that I helped to organize. In the wrap-up session of the summit, we had a panel discussion with two representatives of local conservation organizations and one representative from the City of Raleigh.

Raleigh is currently in the process of re-writing their zoning code. Under the current code, community gardens are illegal on public property and potentially illegal on private property. One of the goals of the group I'm involved with is to encourage the city to add wording into the new code making it possible to zone a piece of land specifically for a community garden.

As the City of Raleigh representative explained this at the summit, she said that the city council is very open to the idea of community gardens but that they need to hear more support from residents. They need to know that people really want community gardens. She added, "The reason I'm able to talk with you today, the reason we were able to have this summit, is because a handful of you contacted your city representatives and said, 'We want community gardens.'"

Because I've been involved with this movement, I know that it was in fact one main person who wrote an impassioned letter to her city representative about why the city of Raleigh needs community gardens. Soon after that individual wrote her letter, the division of the City of Raleigh that focuses on sustainability issues contacted the leader of the group I'm involved with, along with a couple other advocacy groups, to discuss how we can get the ball rolling on establishing community gardens and getting the zoning code changed.

Do personal changes matter? Yes, yes, yes!

But political action matters too. And if we rely on individual change alone, there's only so far we can get.


Here's what other bloggers have to say on the subject:
  • At My Zero Waste, Mrs. Green writes about how personal and political action are intertwined, and we all do the best we can. She says, "I think to my friend who doesn’t care what she eats or feeds her children, but will not use a car because it pollutes the air. Then I think to someone else I know who goes on two long haul holidays each year, but meticulously recycles *everything*. Another person buys more new clothes than I buy food, but spends a lot of her time volunteering to make the world a safe place for people. Another drives everywhere, even to the local shop, but only buys fair trade items. I don’t criticise the actions that have a negative impact on the world, I celebrate the fact that we are all doing something."
  • Going Green Mama takes the opposite stance: "The reality is I can write letters. I can make phone calls. I can rally my neighbors. But in the end, the only person I can trust to make changes is myself. So I'll start with the simple actions I can take, trust that someone else might be listening and hope for the best from there. "
  • Fake Plastic Fish lists eight reasons why personal changes matter. My favorite is conclusion #7: "Personal changes help us to realize that personal change is not enough. We see that as hard as we work to green our own lives, the problem is systemic. We must work to change the system. But until we make our own personal changes, we may not have enough investment in the outcome to push for the bigger steps that are necessary.

What do you think? Which is more important - personal or political action? Which do you focus on? How do you find a balance?

4 comments:

mrs green @ myzerowaste.com said...

Thanks for hosting this carnival and for posing such a thought provoking question. I really enjoyed sharing my thoughts about this topic and reading the other entries :)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@mrs. green - Thanks again for participating!

Kellie said...

Great carnival, great topic. I have done quite a bit of pondering on the subject since it was announced, just didn't find the time to put all those thoughts together on paper. Thanks for sharing your insight!

Toni's Treehouse said...

I have no idea how to even respond to your questions at this point, but I HAD to say this... THANK YOU. In the few minutes it took me to read your post I suddenly felt less alone. You echoed many of the thoughts I've had in recent weeks, and now I feel it's important I think those things through!!!

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