I have the pleasure of being surrounded by a number of ecologically-minded peers and pals, and we share many viewpoints on sustainability solutions, global critiques and politics.
However, there is often one issue that I find causes the most disagreement, or at least, the most debate. That is the issue of appropriate attitudes to ‘fighting the system’- whether this is done loudly and aggressively, or quietly and modestly. This is a subject that I feel can sometimes divide the environmentalist crowd in two.
Of course everyone will subscribe to each approach to different degrees, but the first category, I feel, will broadly include anything from yarn-bombing, campaigning and protesting to more radical measures such as hunger strikes, bombing, arson and assassination. The latter are of course very extreme, and generally do not gain much support from he general public. But the less extreme approaches can still be far more ‘aggressive’ than those who advocate a more peaceful approach would support.
On the other end of the spectrum, this more peaceful approach tends to involve ‘leading by example’, concerning one’s own actions rather than involving the coercion of or campaigning against others’ actions. It tends to be dominated by more of an introverted character, and an ethos of taking care of an appropriate amount of responsibility with the belief that, if everyone did this, then ‘the whole’ would be taken care of. This approach is one which most subscribes to the concept of Permaculture, which in itself has been described as ‘a revolution disguised as gardening’.
In my conversations with my peers, both approaches have received criticism. The approach of leading by example can be seen to be ego-centric, narcissistic and selfish (in an ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ way) and inadequate for tackling the issues that we confront as a society. They have been considered as being naive in expecting that they can make any such real impact.
On the other hand, more direct activism has been criticised as having a tendency to assume a privileged role, being more advanced than others in its appreciation of the need for social change, how to achieve it and who should lead that change (in an ‘I-know-what’s-best’ way). This can create a divide between the privileged few that ‘understand the problem’, and those who do not. It can be seen as being problem-focused, rather than offering solutions. It can be seen as being over-concerned with the actions of others rather than making changes to one’s own actions and behaviour.
Activism relies on some kind of upsurge in the general public taking place, and the political mass agreeing on certain decisions and subsequent actions. This touches upon the research covered in my thesis concerning community gardening in cities, and my more specific article on the subject of scale. The assumption is that power on a grand scale is the only significant way to challenge ecological issues, thus rendering the approach of leading by example as insufficient and marginal.
Instead, I have supported action that is incremental, cumulative and people-centred, “carving out space” an demonstrating different ways of leading a sustainable life rather than proclaiming a revolution. This can be seen as being more solution-focused, a quality supported by the Permaculture concept, which advocates that “the problem is the solution”. Rather than relying on the majority agreeing on what needs to be done, this allows individuals to experiment with their own solutions and negotiate what sustainability means for them. Rather than creating a divide between those who campaign and those who don’t, it creates a culture of empowered individuals and shared responsibility.
This may be seen to be an individualistic approach- a quality associated with the cause of many of the ecological problems in the first place. However, far from being in any way selfish, I have considered this to be a more humble approach, focusing on what the self can do and inspire rather than seeking to change the behaviour of others and dictate the appropriate course of action. It can still be an opportunity for people to unite in their efforts to achieve sustainability, yet allows for disagreements to be negotiated peacefully.
Of course, as with all of my research, I advocate a holistic approach and agree that it is not black and white. Ultimately, diversity is integral to any sustainable solution, and so allowing for each approach to play a role is important. It could be said that each approach is aiming to effect a different kind of change- with activism leaning towards top-down change; campaigning for policy and legal improvements, while leading by example seeks to effect bottom-up change; changes which are likely to multiply throughout societies ‘on the ground’.
The challenge then, is to build a movement grounded in our everyday lives and experiences, which carves the space for people to perform their solutions and balances this with broader top-down approaches to aid this in terms of policy. This will require the organisation of campaign work, and the flexibility, fluidity and creativity of approaches which seek to lead by example. It will be an approach which realises that we are all involved in society, and no person holds a more privileged position or is more advanced.