How to Make Big Change: Our Primary Predicament

I just read an article in by Julia Steinberger, titled “Individuals and social pressure: how to change the world.” Dr. Steinberger is Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. At first, I thought that I was going to disagree with her because I felt that what we really need is social mobilization, not just individual actions. Turns out, I was wrong.

Commitment and Trust

With all the rancor and hatred out there lately, one must wonder how anything can get done at all. For me, the biggest national and global issues have to be climate and ecological destabilization, which not only cause the sixth great extinction, but are leading to global food security crises and related chaos of mass migrations and armed conflict. All of this results from business-as-usual, which dominates all our lives. Everything we value depends on survival as we move deeper into the Anthropocene. Leaders of governments and corporations make vague promises, set abstract future targets for carbon emissions reductions and average temperatures. Yet, they do nothing concrete to achieve any of it. That puts populations all over the world at extreme risk. Who do you trust?

Here is the predicament for anyone who really wants to make change happen. While government and corporations do nothing, it is very difficult for an individual to take meaningful action, given the scale of the global crisis of Earth System deterioration. At first, Dr. Steinberger says that the individual is everything in the effort to apply social pressure to obstinate institutions. She offered the example of Guillermo Fernandez, who went on a hunger strike to demand that the Swiss Parliament meet with climate scientists for them to brief the members on the seriousness of the climate emergency. After 39 days, he won! But how can that be replicated around the world?

Institutions are notoriously resistant to change. Social pressure can force some to alter their behavior or even policies. Yet, it usually takes more than one person to put enough pressure on them. That is where social networks come into serious play. Renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” The power of a small group to make change lies in their commitment to a cause and the trust they have in each other.

The Power of Networks

Individual actions, like recycling, reducing waste, and perhaps even buying locally grown food or an electric car have been used by the biggest polluting corporations to deflect attention from themselves and focus attention on individual behavior as the ‘cause’ of the climate crisis. Yet, the vast majority of carbon pollution emanates from industry, government and military institutions. The corporate power elite has always deployed strategies of ‘divide and conquer’ to achieve its ends. Politicians pretend to take action. Those strategies are direct attacks on the truth that Margaret Mead spoke.

As it turns out, Julia Steinberger, who is Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Lausa, and an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report, and who contributed to the report’s discussion of climate change mitigation pathways, understands the power of networks to make social change. She knows that the change we need is very deep and cannot be made within the institutions whose power such change threatens.

Dr. Steinberger points to the importance of “organic leaders” at work and in communities. However, organic leaders are trusted members of the social networks, which is why they are influential. They are leaders because they are trusted. Speaking to the reader, she says, “The point here is that you can exert social pressure, starting from who you are and what you know and care about.” The strongest potential for making change resides in the trust and commitment of strong social networks.

Social networks are everywhere, from families to communities, to professional, civic, and activist groups. Trusted change agents within strong networks can initiate the kinds of action needed to produce and maximize social pressure on recalcitrant institutions. Strong networks committed to action for change can also become the source of social mobilization for Big Change. And I do not know of any change bigger than the societal transformation required to confront the climate emergency. To achieve that, the mobilization of social networks for action must happen.

Making Big Change Together

The climate emergency is so big and the web of institutions that must change their policies radically to adequately address the emergency (or be replaced) is also so big, that the social pressure to force such big change must also be global in scope and deep in commitment. To say that this goal is daunting would be a major understatement. Yet, it is nothing less than necessary.

That is why those who understand the urgency of the situation must band together in social networks of trust and commitment to take on the task of mounting the greatest campaigns of social pressure and related actions ever taken on by humans. The urgency is why we have no time to work out all the technical details of institutional change before acting to bring about that change.

The urgency of the situation will generate a good deal of creativity along the way. I know too many highly intelligent and committed climate-action advocates who are trying to figure out all the details of what the replacement for the global corporate economy of growth will look like. However, none of it matters unless we can begin the crucial task of rapidly reducing the carbon emissions of industrial civilization now. We must replace industrial civilization. It is that simple and that complex. It therefore will call for a great deal of creativity, on the fly.

In taking action now, creativity will arise in action and serve the goal of salvaging humanity. The result of that action can and must be the greatest collective process of creative destruction never imagined. But unlike the focus on technological innovation in Schumpeter’s vision of creative destruction, the new great transformation must focus on changing social structures to support low energy -use technologies in ecologically harmonious communities. The new social formations needed to harmonize humans with our habitat will necessarily involve the destruction of the old dysfunctional social formations (the political economy of endless economic growth) that neither the planet nor we can afford any longer.

One thought on “How to Make Big Change: Our Primary Predicament

  1. You need a mass mobilisation that only a new religion can bring. People should become so inspired that bribes will not work. We must forego the latest iPhone and willingly dig mud instead. And everyone must choose this way of life. Otherwise, the whole endeavour is utterly pointless. That only happens in fairy tales. Perhaps, our only hope is that God exists and saves us in the nick of time.


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