The reality of climate change challenges our sense of individual and collective agency. As individuals, we know that it is a large and complex problem that cannot be solved by any one
“If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… How would I be? What would I do?”
R. Buckminster Fuller
person or by any single solution. Nonetheless, the stark inadequacy of our collective response is disheartening.
Driven by a desire to make a difference, more and more people are asking themselves important questions: “What can I, as an ordinary person, do to address climate change? Does it help if I recycle or bicycle?” “Can my green vote or green purchase really make a difference?” Should I try to organize my family, friends, neighborhood, or city?” Such questions boil down to a larger existential one: “Can I make a difference?”
A large-scale transformation to sustainability – one that is both ethical and equitable — calls for unprecedented changes in the way that we think and act, whether it is towards the environment, one another, other species, or future generations. The question of whether we, as individuals, can make a difference when it comes to addressing complex global problems such as climate change is both relevant and significant.
Yet what if this is not actually the right question? What if we were to start with the premise that individuals always do, in fact, make a difference? Following on the thoughts of R. Buckminster Fuller, how would we be, and what would we do?
If our point of departure were that individuals do make a difference, we would probably ask ourselves different questions. We might first want to know why, how, and when systems transformations occur. Why do some systems remain intact, despite continuous attempts by some to disrupt, destabilize or destroy them? Why do some systems change quite suddenly, often after a long period of apparent inertia?
We might also want to gain a better understanding of the relationship between individual and collective action, taking into account the latest science on connectivity. To what extent are individual actions discrete and to what extent do they influence a larger collective? How does the way that individuals or groups “see” a system influence how they interact with it? What is the relationship between personal transformation, organizational transformation, cultural transformation, and systems transformation? These are key questions for research, policy and practice.
Whenever we point to well-known individuals and give them credit for creating momentous change, we are actually referencing people who had an intuitive understanding of systems, who knew how to work with their contemporaries, and who saw and enacted the potential for significant change. Whether it was Millicent Fawcett and her work for women’s rights, Eleanor Roosevelt and her work for human rights, or Wangari Maathai and her work for environmental rights, these individuals knew how to influence a larger collective. They knew how to transform systems.
They knew that social change is a non-linear process, and that individuals and groups are connected at the heart. These individuals may or may not have asked themselves whether they could make a difference, but they were nonetheless significant agents of change. When it comes to climate change, it may be time to stop asking whether we can make a difference, and focus instead on how to do it.