Tuesday, September 13, 2011

One step at a time

I want to revisit something I wrote back in May, in response to Matthew's comments on my post What does it mean to be a "pragmatist"?. Matthew's comment is bolded, and my response is below his comment.
Most of your specific criticisms seem to be condemnations of our society as a whole more than specific problems with the bridge (i.e. choose your battles wisely so you can be sure that you are addressing the main source of the problem). I think the best strategy for building momentum in the environmental movement is to attack the very worst offenders first. By choosing battles that most people can agree on we get to solve some of the most important problems without giving fuel to distracters who accuse us of being anti-progress. 
Absolutely. There are so many easy targets for this - polluting incinerators, mountaintop removers, fracking companies. The list goes on and on. There are so many targets, though, that rather than providing a hit-list of entities to take action against, we are overwhelmed by how ingrained ecological degradation is in our behaviour, and how our choices encourages and patronises their existence. We may also convince ourselves that we are trapped with their existence, that there is no way out. For example, many people probably don't like sitting in traffic for many hours each week along their fifteen-mile drive to work, but we have do bear it because work is fifteen miles away. Now, we can try to take down the very worst offenders, of course. As much as I support it and advocate for it, I feel that this won't adequately address the foundational problems that result in such industries. It will only allow others to come up with new ways to harm nature, and consequently people.
I still stand by what I said back in May, but I am seeing Matthew's point more and more, especially in light of the recent civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline that might be built to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas, something I wrote about a few days ago.

Everything is connected, and we cannot do one thing without affecting many things. A more holistic understanding of actions and outcomes is always a good thing. Yet, there are scales of action, there are scales of outcome, and there are scales of effort. The Keystone XL pipeline, while being a single pipeline, is representative of a vast system of decision-making that discounts ecological and social impacts. Action against one major offender is likely representative of our attitudes towards other major offenders (or at least I hope so). And in addressing the complicated issues facing us, as Matthew points out, taking down the major offenders hopefully brings down the foundation that many of the minor offenders operate on.

I think the important thing to remember is that in all we do our individual actions should not be ends in themselves, but rather steps towards something bigger. Refusing to use plastic bags must surely lead to driving less, which must surely lead to regulating your home temperature better, which must surely lead to a discussion with neighbours, which must lead to actions that ban plastic bags altogether, and so on and so forth.

Living trash free is only a step in a much larger journey with much larger outcomes. 

Shout out to Matthew L.

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