To all environmental groups: lifestyle change isn’t going to be enough to avert ecological catastrophe

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Posted Dec 9 2015 by Dave Darby of

Someone said to me the other day that he associated ‘low-impact’ with lifestyle but not with politics or economics. Someone else asked why we blogged about TTIP, economic growth or system change when we were ‘just’ an environmental organisation. This got me thinking – is that what most people believe, i.e. that sustainability is all about lifestyle change, but not political or economic change? For me it’s crystal clear – only a small percentage of the population is going to change their lifestyle for environmental reasons, but even if we all did, we’re still living in an economic system based on competition, profit maximisation and the quest for perpetual growth, which render it inherently unsustainable.

At the same time, our institutions only allow us to bring about change to a certain point – and that point is where corporate profits are threatened. If any country arrives at that point, international corporate investors withdraw their money immediately, forcing the government to backtrack – or worse, forcing them out of office. This has recently happened to Syriza in Greece, but it would happen to any party that managed to brave the storm of propaganda in the corporate media that would inevitably be launched against it.

So I think that we need to be clearer that we are a different kind of sustainability organisation – one that recognises that lifestyle change is essential, but that systemic change is required for us to be able to live without destroying nature.

Some people will never be interested in politics or economics, but are interested in making their lifestyle more sustainable. We can provide lots of things for those people – we already do. But we need to provide more for those who are interested in the potential for economic and political change – first to help raise consciousness of the need for change, and then to provide alternative routes, outside the economic and political mainstream.

Having recently given a talk to a group of environmental science masters students, it was quite depressing to see a group of very able, environmentally-aware young people preparing to be sucked into the corporate sector upon graduation, where their role will be to burnish the environmental image of their corporation of choice, and to rearrange the sustainability deckchairs when the entire corporate Titanic remains on course for the iceberg.

This is the message we’d like to get across – in three parts, for lifestyle changers only, then for those interested in alternative political and economic ideas (radicals, if you like), and finally for those wishing to challenge the political and economic orthodoxy – the rebels. See what you think.


1. Why the environment is the starting point

We’re an environmental organisation with a difference.

Most sustainability organisations are talking about the huge threat to human survival that’s just around the corner if we continue to damage the biosphere. See here for more on this. They’re absolutely right – we’re slipping into a mass extinction event that most of us don’t know is happening, but that will take us with it if we don’t stop it.

Those organisations advise people to become involved in many of the wonderful topics on this site, and we support them in that. But we don’t believe that individual actions are enough to stop the damage to the biosphere. We believe that we need economic and political change too.

If you’re not so interested in economics or politics, we’ve got the world’s biggest online bank of low-impact activities and facilities. Go here and get stuck in. We think that all these topics are useful in themselves, and that the world would be a better place if more people adopted them.

2. Why the system is the root of the problem

If you can see the need for economic and political change too, then you’re a radical, which means someone who looks at the root of an issue – from the Latin radix, meaning root (as is the word radish).

So, we don’t want to continue to be an environmental organisation ‘with a difference’. We’d like to convince other organisations and the general public that the corporate system is inherently unsustainable and undemocratic. In simple terms, it’s a hierarchy that concentrates wealth at the top so much that the economic system is able to buy the political system. More on that here.

At that point (which we’ve already passed, incidentally), democracy becomes a fantasy, sold to us by the corporate media.

What we have, instead of democracy – is a corporate ’empire’. And the way to climb the hierarchy of this empire is to make money. Profit is the motivation – not well-being, enlightenment, love or spirituality – just profit. And this ruthless competition for profit is what’s damaging nature.

So as an organisation ultimately committed to protecting the natural environment, we feel duty bound to point this connection out.

But the big question is: what do we do about it?

The good news is that almost everyone understands now that we live in a corporate-controlled system. From young people on council estates in the Midlands to city bankers, everyone I speak to knows that power today is bought. Some believe that it can’t be challenged – that competition, hierarchy and materialism are human nature, so all we can do is try to minimise the environmental damage that it causes. And other people don’t think about it at all. But we think that it can and must be challenged.

Only a small percentage of people understand the implications of corporate power for sustainability and democracy (which ultimately mean survival and freedom), and an even smaller percentage want to do something about it – the ‘rebels’, if you like. But even though they only comprise a small percent of the population, rebels can be successful, because it only takes a small minority to start something rolling that can really change society. Furthermore, most people know that this is a bad system, and so they wouldn’t try to prevent the introduction of a better one, as long as their security isn’t threatened.

If you’re a ‘rebel sympathiser’, go to Move your money and withdraw your financial support from the corporate sector. Also, if you have a business corresponding to any of our topics, Join our Network. And of course, you can Change your Life.

3. How to challenge the system

If you consider yourself a ‘rebel’ – i.e. you understand that we live in an undemocratic, unsustainable ’empire’, and would like to do something about it, read on.

There are already enough of us to change this system. But only if we’re co-ordinated. There are lots of disparate groups trying to be a thorn in the side of corporate capitalism, but they’re not really challenging its dominance. Every year, more of the global economy falls under the control of the corporate sector, and they have powerful tools to keep it that way – TPP, TTIP, GM, nuclear, the lobby industry, the World Bank and IMF, the media, political funding, the financial system, the military etc.

What’s needed is co-ordination of the rebel network. The corporate empire is a rigid, command-and-control hierarchy where everyone knows their place and what to do, without the need for any conspiracy – they need to make money. If they do, they climb the hierarchy, and if they don’t, they’re out. The current rebel networks are no match for the power of this hierarchy.

The parliamentary system is owned by the empire. The solution will not be found there. If an anti-empire party is elected anywhere, as in Greece, that country will be punished by the empire until they elect a pro-empire party. International investors will remove their money from that country and bankrupt it. The parliamentary route can’t challenge them – at best it can make small improvements that will be wiped out by future pro-corporate governments.

And the most important thing that the 20th century taught us is surely that violent revolution is not the answer. When violent men take power, they keep it.

Collectivism is a socialist approach that will never be accepted by the right. And competition is a capitalist approach that will never be accepted by the left. And so the Empire can’t be challenged via either of these approaches, because left and right will cancel each other out and leave the corporate sector unchallenged, and amused by the left and right battles beneath them. Left values include fairness, unity and equality; right values include freedom, independence and responsibility. All those values are good, so let’s unite and live by those values. The term ‘we are the 99%’ is often heard, but if left and right are separate, we can’t be the 99% – each can only be the 49.5%, and that’s not enough.

Co-operation is a much better approach than either collectivism or competition. Both those approaches result in hierarchy. Co-operation could involve collectivism as long as it’s voluntary, and people can leave at any time. But it should also include the option of self-employment, if that’s what people want.

Co-operation with self-employment is acceptable to right and left, so let’s build a co-operative, non-hierarchical society. Co-operative and non-hierarchical is neither socialist nor capitalist – what it really is, is anarchist. However, because it’s actually the only approach that threatens empire (of left or right), it has been attacked by both sides whenever it appears spontaneously, and the empire’s media ensures that the general perception of the word is that it involves violence and chaos. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether we reclaim or avoid the word is up for debate – but ultimately it doesn’t matter as long as the approach is co-operative and non-hierarchical.

There are already great people building this co-operative, non-hierarchical system – people working in community energy, housing and worker co-ops, open source, community-supported agriculture, cryptocurrencies, credit unions, mutual societies and so on.

First, we can all support them by moving our money. And of course we can all change our lives too. And if you have a low-impact business, you can join our network.

Then, we have to persuade, cajole, pester and beg the masses to withdraw from the corporate sector, by making sure that they get the essentials of life from this new sector – food, energy, banking, telephony, IT, housing, employment, leisure, holidays, transport and everything else. Many people will see the need for it, and will do it if we make it really easy for them. Critical mass will be achievable when non-corporate products and services are a penny cheaper than the corporate alternatives. This is difficult when we’re up against economies of scale, sweatshops and tax avoidance, but we’re already there with some things (open source and housing co-ops for example). We can get there.

This is what we’ll be talking to key people in the non-corporate sector about over the coming months, then we’ll outline the project on this site, along with other ideas for co-ordinating the rebel network – for example events, articles, debates, joint campaigns, a magazine etc.

So at this point, we’ll have a low-impact network helping individuals change their lives, and on top of this we’ll have a non-corporate network helping to change the economy, after which, we can talk about a political network for taking political power from the corporate empire. It will involve building a system with no access for corporate money or influence.

Here’s the germ of an idea, and we can debate others.

At this point, the anarchists out there may point out that the idea above looks suspiciously like a form of government, which although it may be co-operative, can’t really be non-hierarchical. We think that they might be persuaded that in fact, the people chosen from face-to-face contact are not moving vertically through layers, but horizontally through concentric cirles in a flat system. Potentially, it’s a way to take the steering wheel from the corporate sector so that we, as in all of us, can decide which direction we want to go in. Do we want a world with nuclear weapons? or artificial intelligence? or genetic modification? Let’s make those decisions using criteria other than the potential for corporate profit. We have a global decision-making process at the moment, and it’s corporate. Decision-making powers have to be taken away from the corporate sector, and I don’t see anything else on the horizon that could possibly do it. With a system like this, and with a co-operative rather than competitive or collective economy, there is scope to transition to a truly non-hierarchical world, in a way that doesn’t appear possible in one step from corporate capitalism.

Let’s talk about it.