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Political Agency is the Key

“In the aftermath of the Paris climate conference, one lifestyle change will stand out as key: cultivating political agency to lead transformative change.” (O’Brien 2015)

We are now in the aftermath of Paris, and the resulting agreement has set a global stage for transformative change. Whether we call it a low-carbon society, a climate-resilient society, or a sustainable society, we need social change and systems change at a rate and scale that is unprecedented in human history. And to realize such transformations, we need individuals with political agency. But what is political agency and how do we actually cultivate it?

In a recent Science Perspective, I defined political agency within the context of climate change as “the capacity to positively influence the collective future through transformative change.” I argued that we need a more expansive view of political agency – a broader and deeper understanding that recognizes the potential of individuals to lead transformative change.

Small changes can lead to big changes
Politics refers to “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” And it is precisely these relationships — the ones that define and perpetuate the structures and systems that contribute to climate change and social vulnerability — that can be transformed through political agency. Alternatives exist or can be created, but it will take individuals working collectively to realize them. This has some practical implications for transformative change.

A broader notion of political agency recognizes that small changes can lead to big changes. Our decisions, actions and words influence others, creating ripple effects that can cascade through networks. In practice, this means that seemingly insignificant actions really can make a difference. When we leave the car at home and take public transport, we become part of a social movement that is normalizing collective transport. When we use our voice to demand extended access or more frequent train departures, we become part of a political movement for structural change, which can lead to changes in infrastructure, investments, subsidies, spatial planning, and so on. A broader notion of political agency gives individuals an important role in collective change, not only because our “spheres of influence” reach beyond what may be visible to us, but also because we can extend our influence, for example through conversations and collaborations.

A deeper sense of political agency draws attention to the personal and shared beliefs and assumptions that maintain the status quo. These may include the idea that high material consumption is essential to a healthy global economy; that individuals cannot influence systems; or that inequality and poverty are a given. In practical terms, this means that significant power lies in our capacity for critical reflection and our ability to distinguish the beliefs that serve us well from those that threaten ecological systems and human security.

Challenging the ‘givens’
The things that we accept as given seldom change. Whether it is power, politics, attitudes, or behaviors, it is difficult to transform anything until we consider it as a variable rather than a constant. For example, if we consider short-sighted, selfish behavior as a fixed characteristic of humans, it will be all the more challenging to realize far-sighted social, economic and environmental policies that benefit the collective good and future generations.

Belief in the inevitability of a more than 2°C warmer world can blind us to viable solutions and alternatives. This scenario becomes the only conceivable outcome if we consider today’s greenhouse gas emissions, the global economic system, the current political situation, and human behavior as “given.” But if we challenge the norms, rules and relationships that (re)produce the current situation, including how power is distributed and how politics operates, we realize that the 1.5°C goal may not, in fact, be impossible. Such an ambitious goal does not require a miracle. Instead, it requires that we exert political agency through decisions, actions, ideas, and conversations.

Leading transformations
While Gandhi reminds us to “be the change that you want to see in the world,” climate change makes it clear that we also need to lead the change that we want to see in the world. To exert political agency is to be a leader – not in the traditional, hierarchical sense that equates leadership with charismatic individuals who have a loyal group of followers, or with people who are elected or appointed to act on behalf of others. Rather, we are leaders in webs and networks of relationships, key nodes that can connect and motivate transformations to sustainability.

Realizing the ambitions of the Paris Agreement calls for less politics-as-usual and more political agency.  Individual change and collective change are connected through political agency, and that is why it is the key to transformative change.

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