Individual change or system change is not the right question

I have been thinking about change.

Specifically, I have been thinking about the difference between individual change and system change. These terms are prevalent in the climate change discourse, and often presented as a black-and-white, mutually exclusive choice. This is a false dichotomy.

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Exploring the fringe: Environmental breakdown vs. the System

The unravelling, and a ball of thread

2018 was a watershed year for public awareness of ecological and climate breakdown. I had heard about these crises many times over the years, however I never really thought about them in a focused way. Last year, I decided to start studying.

Information on climate change and biodiversity loss is like an endless ball of thread. You pull the thread and more comes out. You keep pulling, the same thing happens. Now several months in, I am still pulling that thread, and still learning. Information ever more curious, ever more serious, ever more disconcerting.

Below, I am highlighting some of the more unorthodox material that I have come across. This is not a comprehensive review but rather a few points and observations on each source, to give you an idea.

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Collapse: You cannot prepare for what remains unthinkable

What if there was no cash at the ATM?
What if there was no petrol at the bowser?
What if your home didn’t have electricity or running water?
What if there was no food at the supermarket?
What if there was no ATM, or petrol station, or supermarket?
What would your life be like?

We have known about climate change breakdown for over a hundred years. This knowledge has been more broadly accessible since the 1970’s, and it has become more acute by the decade. Yet, we have done nothing.

As climate breakdown fills the news every day now, people in wealthy countries are more aware of it. However, the general reaction has not been a change in individual behaviour, or demands for systemic change: instead, it is a mix of denial, apathy and mild despair.

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Collapse: A reading list

This post is a list of essays and articles covering climate and ecological breakdown from various perspectives, including how these overlapping crises may induce collapse of industrial civilisation as we know it. This is companion piece to my essay on collapse – please read that first.

We are currently living in the early ripples of extinction-magnitude crises. There is no time for cheermongering or false hope. The time to act is now.

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Promise of change without changing at all: The electric car as a talisman of false hope

In the public imagination, the electric car – and the hybrid car before it – has been hailed as a key solution for consumers to reduce their environmental impact and help slow climate change.

As one indicator, web searches for Tesla are up over 450% from 2012 to 2018 peak, and the company is now valued at over US$54 billion on the stock market. The cars are selling, too: Tesla sales are up seven-fold from Q3 2015 to Q3 2018.

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We are mistaking wants for needs and it is costing us the world

As consumers, we always want more, and we are very good at justifying these wants as needs. I discuss how to separate wants from needs, why it is important in a world on the cusp of irreversible climate breakdown, and why we urgently need to want less.

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On embodied emissions, exploitation and the unsustainability of consumer products

One core feature of globalised capitalism is that supply and demand, production and consumption are geographically separated. Consumers buying physical products have very little visibility into the supply chain and the participating organisations beyond the maker (the public brand) and the seller (the place of purchase). As consumers, we tend to stick with the story crafted by marketing and advertising, and assessing the sustainability of a product beyond this superficial understanding is a challenge we are not encouraged to take on.

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Undo capitalism or it will undo us

Let’s start with an assumption:

We want to live meaningful lives on a healthy planet and we want the generations to come to be able to do the same.

And a related definition of true sustainability (Ehrenfeld 2009):

[Sustainability is] the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever

We are currently using 1.7 Earths each year. This means that ‘we use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate, through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ecosystems can absorb’ (source).

Our current way of life is deeply unsustainable.

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