So, let me get back to Walmart. I was shopping there (I’m not sure exactly what to think about the company; I might ponder further) for dog food, and was close to shocked, yet again, by the, well, how should I put it—the general lack of health and education exhibited by a great many shoppers in the store. And I was struck by a pretty clear thought—that most people in the store, and by extension, a huge proportion of average Americans, probably don’t give a rat’s behind about the planet. Judging from their appearances, they clearly don’t even give a rat’s behind about their own health, arguably their greatest asset. So, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that 75% of people don’t care enough to act, and 25% do. How do we get the system to change? Voting has its limits—the majority will keep their candidates in office. (The unfortunate side-effect of democracy in this case is that it tends to work—which makes change difficult if the majority is resisting that change). So voting for carbon taxes or CAFE standards or limits on pesticides or incentives to install renewable power generation might not result in change.
The answer is both simple and daunting. What will work is for individuals to start switching. Change will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. We don’t need radical new political or economic systems, no radical communism or free-love communes or the abolishment of private property. Our systems are good ones, we just need to re-prioritize. So we need to start switching. Switching to renewable power, switching to organic food, switching to Fair Trade products, switching to more disciplined lifestyles with regard to exercise and consumption and spending, switching our investments to reward businesses who are also trying to switch, switching to more conservation and efficiency… The list goes on. We can’t completely “switch”, because we live and breathe and consume within an unsustainable system. But we can begin the apply pressure, in all these areas.
It’s daunting, because there is such incredible inertia in the system, and because the system is huge. It is like pushing an immobile Titanic and trying to get it to move. Or worse, pushing the Titanic with only two fingers. You push; nothing seems to change. But, when I push, and you push, and others push, and we all push together, and when we all keep pushing, something amazing starts to happen—the Titanic begins to move. It might be almost imperceptible at first. But pressure in the market produces more good options, and suddenly it’s easier to buy renewable power, or organic foods become a little cheaper, or more electric vehicles are on the road, or fewer cattle are raised in CAFO’s and more are grassfed. The changes begin to pop up in more and more places. Better recycling systems, changes in attitudes about consumption and McMansions, a better appreciation of the natural world, more networks of fair trade, more manufacturers using greener methods because it becomes a way to please their customers, more movement toward building walkable communities and stopping suburban sprawl.
Over time, it will become easier for others to participate, because the hurdles will be lower. Our efforts will gain their own momentum, and we will find that we can push the Titanic with both hands instead of just two fingers. Grassfed beef might be an option in all the stores, and not just the farmer’s markets or Co-ops. More and more utilities will offer their customers the option of paying a few cents more for renewable power. EV charging stations will be everywhere, so the added effort of driving an EV will all but disappear. More and more committed people can “switch completely”, and be able to live lives that are largely sustainable.
Then those Walmart shoppers and the 75% will start to participate more and more by default. They won’t have to think about it, or to go out of their way. They will turn on their lights at home, and the power will come from renewable sources. They will go to buy a used car, and the cars on the lot will all be EVs. They will go to buy food, and most of the food in the aisles will have been grown in a sustainable way…
And then, finally, finally, we will get enough numbers to successfully vote for change in politics, as well as voting with our dollars as we have been all along. And all those people pushing will begin to win the political battles. They will vote for carbon taxes that will shut down coal and tar sands extraction, they will vote for high-speed electric trains, and long-distance DC transmission lines, and smart grids, and fairer economic policies. They will vote for expanded wildlife protection, and marine sanctuaries, and wilderness areas. They will vote for mandatory recycling systems, and more stringent pollution requirements, and for prices for water that truly reflect its scarcity, and for agreements with other nations with regard to environmental concerns.
With this power we can build the world we truly need, with true circular manufacturing and recycling, carbon-free energy, zero population growth, and an economy that is decoupled from the environment. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can actually reverse some of the damage we’ve done.
We are at the beginning now, but there are glimmers of hope. I see the Titanic beginning to move. It’s still heading in the wrong direction, but it’s beginning to turn. I see wind turbines across the country, I see a new “green” electronics recycling facility down the road, I see two new EV charging stations in town and more being installed, I hear the farmer who leases my fields tell me that he uses a fraction of the chemicals that he did ten years ago, and I see plenty of people supporting their local organic growers.
So join me, and let’s push together.
Image credit: volokhatiuk / 123RF Stock Photo