Believing otherwise: Individual action and social change

Individual actions won’t change the world — but that doesn’t mean every advocate of personal change is headed in the wrong direction.

[A recent email exchange reminded me of this article, which was first published in Climate & Capitalism in May 2010. I wouldn’t change a word today.]

by Ian Angus

I recently received a letter from a young activist who attended the climate summit in Cochabamba. He described it as a life-changing experience that has inspired him to try to change the way he lives, to adopt the indigenous principle of Bien Vivir – living well – as his personal philosophy. We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves, he wrote.

His letter was enthusiastic and inspiring, but I know that many on the left would respond that he had learned exactly the wrong lessons in Bolivia. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard, or participated in, conversations like this.

“You say you want to change the world, but what are you doing to make it a better place?”

“I ride my bicycle to work … use low-power light bulbs … grow my own vegetables … avoid bottled water … turn down my thermostats …”

“Those are distractions from the real problem. Individual actions won’t change anything. We need to fight for political power.”

“If you don’t change your own life, then you aren’t serious about real change.”

“Until we change the system, real personal change is impossible.”

And so on.

The debate isn’t artificial. Individual actions won’t change the world; only collective struggle can do that. But that doesn’t mean that every advocate of personal change is headed in the wrong direction.

In Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History, historian Ian McKay argues that being a “leftist” in capitalist society  means,  ”believing, at a gut level, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’”

Radicals, he says, have to believe otherwise, they have to be deeply certain that another world is possible. “Knowing what this living otherwise entails means struggling to make the possibility a reality.”[1]

And, he says, in many cases such understanding flows from and involves attempts to actually bring the new world into existence through personal action. He writes:



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