Sustainability lacks a human enemy, unlike most social movements. Does that difference explain why people don’t engage on it?

May 30, 2023 by Joshua
in Leadership

I’m not a historian of social movements, but I tend to believe they mostly involve one group fighting another group. (Please tell me if you know otherwise.) People love banding with an in-group and fighting an out-group. I think humans tend to look for human enemies to oppose. Regarding sustainability, many look at fossil fuel companies, for example.

But Exxon and its peers don’t buy their products. We do. The problem in sustainability is our collective behavior. Since nearly no one decides to pollute for the purpose of polluting, but rather to visit distant family or make the air in their homes cooler and less humid, there is no other group to fight against like an invading army or opposing political party.

Certainly Exxon and peers broke laws, but for a long time, coal and oil seemed beyond harmless. They seemed valuable and decreased harm by enabling machines to do heavy or repetitive work. In other words, they seaemed to improve the world. They became huge and seem irreplaceable on the time scales we need to restore the environment to healthy to prevent collapse of human population and civilization.

I’m beginning to see that sustainability has no clear opponent among humans, which I suspect makes the cause less appealing. If any opponent exists, it’s us, the polluting, depleting cultures. The side we think we’re on is for clean air, land, water, and food, but we’re nearly all lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. If there are any bad guys, we’re it.

People get angry about personal action, saying it won’t make a difference. On the contrary, we all have to change to become sustainable. I can say what nearly no one else can from experience: that you’ll prefer that change when it happens. A phrase I say a lot *and wonder if I heard it or made it up myself) describes how we have to work to restore sustainability: top-down, bottom-up, everywhere, all at once.

I suspect not having a clear opponent, or finding that opponent in ourselves, makes it hard for us to engage beyond lip service.

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