The 6 main approaches to changing the world; which one do you subscribe to?

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Posted Apr 23 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
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We received an email recently with these sentences: ‘This idea of those evil corporations is mistaken because we are all involved in society and economy. There is no us and them we are all part of it and need to take responsibility for that.’

I’ve been working in the field of environmental and social change for 20 years, and have studied it for 40. I’ve had this conversation so many times, that I knew how the debate would pan out. From that one sentence, I could guess how the author would think about a whole raft of ideas around social and environmental change. It got me thinking. Why not write an article that covered the main approaches, so that I could point to it instead of having the same conversations over and over again. I distilled it down to six main approaches, but you may come up with more.

This, for me, is the most important part of my work, and believing that we have power over areas that we don’t is the main reason that we are failing in our attempt to halt ecological destruction – not just climate change, but also increasing toxicity, soil loss and habitat destruction. The upshot is that we’re in a mass extinction event, that has to stop or we’ll become extinct ourselves. But it’s not stopping – peer-reviewed ecologists are telling us that it’s accelerating.

By the way, I’d just like to point out that I’ve never said that anything is the fault of ‘evil corporations’ – or individuals. In fact I’ve said the exact opposite, in the first paragraph here. There are nasty individuals of course, and this system allows them to do quite well. As Slavoj Zizek says: ‘the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt’.

So, I’ve only ever come across people whose position fits one of these six groups (and this is about change, so it doesn’t include people who subscribe to ‘more of the same’):

1. don’t know or care – the vast majority of the world’s population, most of whom are just trying to survive, or in the West, are more interested in sport, celebrity, fashion, shopping, TV etc.

2. know but don’t care – they think we’re headed for extinction but think that it’s inevitable, nothing can be done to stop it, and we deserve it.

3. know and care, and think that we can turn things around if enough people do something – change the way they think, live, work, shop, vote or pray (and so a subset of 3. is that a political party, charismatic leader or God will sort it all out). We don’t have to think about the system as a whole.

4. know, care and see that individual change won’t be enough, because we’re living in an empire (i.e. a strict hierarchy, where wealth and power are concentrated in a tiny elite at the top. Previous empires have been based on nationality or geographical area – this empire is based purely on money, which is concentrated at the top of the corporate sector, and that’s where the power is). When you see it you see it, and you can never unsee it. Everything that you read in the newspapers, everything that politicians say, even TV adverts are all seen through a different lens, and things that previously didn’t make sense suddenly do. It also becomes obvious that taking power away from an empire requires system change – i.e. a new system that doesn’t concentrate wealth and power, and doesn’t require perpetual growth. They see that lifestyle change is never going to be enough, because a) not enough people will do it (see 1. and 2. above, as well as the ‘more of the same’ gang), and b) empires can easily prevent incremental change that threatens their power. They believe that a communist-style, violent revolution is required, to hold centralised power until it can be devolved more democratically.

5. know, care and also see that we’re living in an empire, and that we need system change, for the above reasons, but think that a communist revolution will centralise power but never devolve it – military men who seize power never let go of it. Their solution is a violent revolution that devolves power to grassroots networks rather than centralising it in the hands of a few people.

6. more-or-less the same as 5, but without the violence. They believe that the empire can be weakened by building a new economy based on co-ops, open source and ‘commons’ – e.g. community energy, credit unions, community-supported agriculture, housing and worker co-ops, open source, peer-to-peer etc. (but also self-employment and lifestyle change – i.e. ‘DIY’). This sector is starting to take off, but taking back the economy, even if successful, is not enough – we also have to take back governance. The really big decisions that affect humanity – like whether to continue to develop nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetic modification, nuclear power etc. – are already being made in corporate boardrooms, based on profitability. We need to take these decision-making powers into democratic ownership, or at least get better people making them, based on what’s good for all of us, not just for corporate profits.

I’m a number 6 (and sometimes, in my darker moments, I slip into number 2), but I agree that lifestyle change is essential (no. 3) – after all, that’s what Lowimpact.org is all about. I spend quite a lot of time debating with members of other groups (the higher the number, the easier the discussion).

But rational debate is (almost) never going to change people’s minds there and then. People have to discover things for themselves. What never happens is this: ‘you know, I’ve listened to your argument and you’ve convinced me. I’m going to abandon views that I’ve held for years and adopt new ones’. But that doesn’t mean that debate is pointless. People do move between groups – it just tends to happen gradually, and in reflective moments. The seed of an idea can be planted, that convinces people to do their own research, that will eventually make them realise that they’ve moved into another group. This applies to me as well, by the way. I’ve spent time in most of the groups above at various points in my life, and I’m very susceptible to a good argument. I will do my homework to look into different positions, and if I decide that they make sense, I will change.

Discussions between people in the same group are usually strategic, and discussions between people in different groups can often be futile at best or confrontational at worst. Actually, the best is not futile – the best can be strategic on certain points – for example, I can have a useful conversation with someone in group 3 about people growing their own food, building their own natural homes, installing renewables etc., or in groups 4 or 5 about how to weaken the power of the empire. But if the conversations move to deeper waters – how we can harmonise with nature globally, for example, or exactly what kind of non-corporate governance can be introduced and how – then because our analyses of the situation are different, our solutions are going to be different too.

But the important thing is to keep talking.

Which group are you in, and why?