Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Stop Being an Individual
distributed 5/20/16 - ©2016

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt of Fulton, Missouri, in memory of the Rev. Bob Clark. Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

Bill McKibben -- one of the most prominent and inspiring leaders of the climate justice movement -- gets a lot of questions. One of those questions, apparently, comes up pretty often, and he has developed a short and surprising response.

Q: "What is the best thing an individual can do for the climate?"
A: "Stop being an individual."

In the hyper-individualistic culture of the United States, those words of instruction may be confusing, or even frightening. There are two aspects of McKibben's advice, though, that are solid, helpful and empowering.

He's certainly speaking about collective action -- something that is vividly in my heart and mind after the Break Free actions of civil disobedience around the world this month. And I think he's also pointing to a change of mindset and values.

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Let me start with the values piece, which is reflected in another question that I hear frequently. "Why should I care about climate change?"

More bluntly: What difference does a changing climate make for me, or for my immediate circle of friends? I'll be dead before things get bad, so why should I worry? What benefit do I get if I do act?

The individualistic mindset is fixated on me and mine. The values are focused on personal costs and benefits.

"Stop being an individual" points us toward a more expansive set of values and concerns. As we begin to break free of overwhelming individualism, it is possible to care in terms of "we" instead of just "me".

Our circles of concern stretch out to future generations -- even if that is just our own children and grandchildren. We can think about the common good, our collective life together as a local community, a region, a nation, a world. We might begin to think in terms of "climate justice" and the disproportionate impacts of global climate warping on large classes of people -- by income, nationality, or race.

"Stop being an individual" and start to see yourself as a responsible part of a larger community. That's a good starting place for any religious ethics. In churches that have a hard time addressing issues of social justice or climate change, the "we" of faithful ethics might be an essential -- and often neglected -- piece of spiritual development and theological education.

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More directly, though, McKibben is urging people to move beyond individual, personal actions. The things that need doing to bring about substantial, institutional and cultural change require us to work together in coordinated ways. They are things that we have to do together.

Irish environmental scientist and climate educator Cara Augustenbork has written a good blog post on the topic. She said, "When Bill McKibben says 'stop being an individual', I think 'join others in working toward a common cause'. In other words, become an activist."

This spring, I've been giving a lot of attention to the Break Free movement, and I've stressed it in most of the Notes for the last six weeks. These coordinated acts of civil disobedience at strategic settings -- 20 actions on 6 continents, involving 30,000 people -- are profoundly different from things that individuals do on their own. Each of these actions was powerful and effective because of being done by a group working together.

In Australia, 2,000 people joined together -- in kayaks and blocking rail lines -- to shut down the world's largest coal port for a day. That is not something that "I" can do as an individual. Similar stories of collective activism and civil disobedience come from Nigeria and Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa, and from the United States.

Just over a week ago, I took part in one of those action, disrupting an auction of new oil and gas leases by the US Bureau of Land Management. And -- finally resolving a question that I'd raised in recent Notes -- I did choose to risk arrest as part of that collective civil disobedience. What happened that day was clearly something that "we" did, and that could not have been done by individuals acting alone.

Early in the action, seven of us pushed into the building where the auction was held, and we encountered about 20 police officers blocking our way to the auction room. At that point, it was clear that we were not going to get through the police line. We did get a chance to talk to the cops about our goals. We made it clear that our crowd of 250 people was not vying for the 40 available seats to observe the auction. We were there to stop it. But then we left the hotel lobby and went outside to rejoin the whole group.

A bit later, a much larger crowd pushed inside -- probably 75 or 100 of us. We were singing and chanting, being loud and obnoxious (and also non-violent). The police announced that we were on private property, that we were trespassing, that we must leave or we would be arrested. And no one left.

The demand to leave was met with chants: "We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!" and "Shut it down!" (A short video by Greenpeace describes the two Colorado actions, including some scenes of the lobby occupation.) Confronted with that concerted, collective presence, the police could not make us leave. They conceded most of the lobby to us for over an hour, until the auction ended. Then we left, with no arrests.

We were there in an act of civil disobedience -- and that is only meaningful and effective when people act together. In this case, we were not able to stop the auction from taking place. But our collective action brought some substantial media coverage, and it (and similar disruptions of other auctions) has forced the US Secretary of the Interior to make public statements about our critique of the BLM leases. Working together, we are effecting social change in a way that individuals cannot.

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Civil disobedience is not the only way of taking collective action.

* The movement to divest from fossil fuels is ludicrous as a way for people to act one-by-one. But when divestment is debated and enacted by universities, denominations, pension funds and foundations, it becomes an effective strategy for delegitimizing the fossil fuel industries.

* Citizens working together to put environmental initiatives on the ballot are working together for legal and systemic change. No one person can draft those initiatives and gather tens of thousands of signatures. But, working together, we can initiate those changes.

* The Citizens Climate Lobby is organizing people in every US congressional district to work together for "carbon fee and dividend" legislation. Their carefully coordinated grassroots advocacy is building a remarkable, bi-partisan effort for economic transformation.

Bill McKibben tells us that the best thing an individual can do for the climate is to "stop being an individual."

Our personal choices are important, but individual actions are not sufficient to bring about the scale of change that is needed. We must act together. We must be activists. We must be part of a movement.

How will you break out of the box of individualism? How will you take part in some sort of collective action? Make a decision soon, and get to work in your part of the movement.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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