I’m entering my last semester in college, beginning to think about “what I want to do with my life.” As an activist and a generally idealistic person, looking forward into this transition is exciting and confusing, as it is for most other graduating seniors I know. My goal is to do whatever I can that will make the most positive impact on the world, and be happy doing it. Oh, and survive. As my values change, the manifestations of that goal will change.
But as I think about what my options are, I feel as though I am facing a difficult, almost impossible choice: To live sustainably myself, or to advocate for a sustainable society. I’m not using the word “sustainable” lightly, at least in this particular train of thought. I’m talking about living in such a way that is 100% possible to sustain into the future. This means no reliance on the conventional energy grid nor the food system. This means growing my own food, no ifs buts or ands. This means not connecting my laptop to an outlet that sucks energy that was made at a coal-fired power plant. And yes, this means no car road trips to visit friends or airplane travel home. I’m talking about the real deal.
Unfortunately, to live both 100% sustainably while organizing for broader change in society at the same time seams nearly impossible. The organizing world means a whole lot of laptop action, and maybe even flying by airplane to a conference, training, or educational event. It often means living in a city. While sustainable urban agriculture is on the rise, most modern activists rely on the industrial food system in some way, shape, or form. There’s just not enough time to live the life we’d like to live, while organizing for large-scale change. That’s why I’m pulled in two directions: to the farm, and to the city (to put it in simplest terms).
Of course, there’s a privilege dynamic to this discussion as there always is. I have the capacity to go “off the grid,” work on a permaculture farm, live the life I feel is right, and feel good about myself. Not everyone has that capacity nor that desire, and that’s why it seems so much of the real work is in cities or at least in touch with civilization. Communities everywhere will still be screwed over by polluting industries while I go off and “live sustainably.” I can go off the grid, but what does that really do for others?
A lot of modern environmentalists, sustainability organizers, and climate justice activists are moving away from the narrative that places the burden on our own backs, demanding that we live our lives differently, and toward the narrative that blames the system and demands system change. This new narrative is keenly focused on environmental justice – race, class, gender, historical oppression. It’s moving away from the idea that we each must take our own individual steps, like changing light bulbs and buying organic, and that will change the world. It’s no surprise to anyone that only a small percentage of the population is going to do that. Hence the need for widespread system change, hence the campaigns, local to global.
I think that both the narratives I mentioned are true, and necessary. We are both caught and actively participating in an ecosystem of oppression. True change requires that we work on ourselves and the system. Which is probably as difficult as it sounds to pull off.
Every activist faces that mental roadblock that tells you it’s impossible, it’s too late, there’s no point, or the solution doesn’t exist. We may put on a front of unequivocal hope, but from talking to my activist friends, I know that roadblock is real. Because the scary truth is that we don’t know if we’ll win, or even if this is a game that has winners or losers. We don’t know what it means to “win,” what that even looks like. Especially with a challenge like climate change, which is threatening all life on earth and is accelerating at a dizzying pace, with its whirlwind of feedback loops, the future can look grim. I’m of the opinion that tackling climate change means changing the world’s entire economic system and societal values. I don’t believe that sustainable development and business solutions will get us all the way where we need to go. I’m not sure how we’re going to get there, but they say all revolutions start within…
I’m a human, and some days that makes me feel all-powerful and other days miniscule. Maybe it’s time we break down the walls between individual change and collective action. I want to make choices and seek actions that do both. I want to transform my lifestyle and the system that affects the choices I am able to make. I want to find personal actions that are political, and political actions that are personal. I’m looking for ideas; throw them at me folks!
As a college student and organizer, I often find myself behind the perma-glow of my Macbook, on google docs, facebook, listserves, blogs, justifying the energy consumption with the hope that my activism might be changing some piece of the world for the better. Someday the good will outweigh the bad, I tell myself. But let me get up onto my soapbox for a minute, and give my fellow activists some advice:
Keep harnessing the power of technology for good. But please promise me that you will learn the land, inhabit real places, make a home, learn its geology and history and ecology and social landscapes, participate in its present, map its future. Engage. Put your hands in the dirt and grow real plants. Because the land surrounding you is the stage on which all this is being played. And most importantly, you are a real player with real consequences, making choices every second that affect everything.
There is a hell of a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the future and our fight for global environmental justice. We could triumph, or we could not. We face the possibility of a full-on revolution, the kind that we sing in our hearts, or the climate apocalypse that we fear is quickly approaching. But something recently occurred to me that is strangely hopeful: the same skills that will serve us in starting a revolution will also serve us in the apocalypse. I think in both cases we will need to know how to grow our own food, get around without cars, make our own energy, sew our own clothes, build our own houses, make our own stuff. Learning a new skill will help you in the long run, no matter what. Bring on the DIY parties!
I still do believe in campaigns like fossil fuel divestment that are harnessing economic power to make system-wide change, to start shifting wealth into positive solutions. Divestment campaigns are making ripples wider than any one individual could ever reach. Other large-scale efforts like global climate treaties, LEED certification of buildings, anti-fracking organizing, and food cooperatives are equally awesome and empowering. But I often come back to myself, and realize that my lifestyle will have to change to fit the new societal model I’m campaigning for. It just has to. Less energy, less meat, less waste, less plastic. Learn to grow food, bicycle, build things, compost, collect rainwater, make energy. Get off my “devices” and take walks. Learn all the skills I can that take me off of fossil fuels. It’s not a burden, but an empowering possibility to live more fully, freely, and in love with the earth.
So what am I going to do? Everything I can, I suppose. For starters, this semester I plan to learn how to grow food at the Student Organic Garden and learn how to chop my own wood with the Cal Logging Sports Team. I won’t give up my laptop; I’ll still be writing, emailing, google doc-ing, traveling, and organizing with the California Student Sustainability Coalition. But I would like to spend more time in my Berkeley hills, out and about, phone turned off, feeling the landscape. And what am I going to do with my life? Maybe I’ll strive for 50-50. Spend half my time working on myself and my lifestyle, learning skills and becoming more ecologically able. I’d like to go work on a farm and learn all I can, learn what it feels like to live fully in harmony. But I’ll make sure to bring whatever new skills I gain back with me and teach as many people as I can. And I’d like to live in the city, work with people, organize my community, tackle the systemic oppression that controls the way life is lived on earth. That I am even presented with choices like these is an incredible privilege in itself, and I have the responsibility to use that privilege to help others. I hope someday this pull between two opposing choices will start to be less of a pull and more of a collective push. Let’s be as bold and demanding with ourselves as we are with politicians and CEOs, and we’ll never stop growing.