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The Power of One (Hope, Part 5)

Updated: May 10




""One individual alone cannot possibly make a difference. It is individual efforts, collectively, that make a noticeable difference. All the difference in the world!"

Jane Goodall




"Because where does change really begin?

You don't have to be a professor to understand that this is actually the wrong question. After all, change can start anywhere. On your plate and in the factory, at home and at work, in Delfzijl and in The Hague, in the boardroom and at Uncle Sjon's birthday party. The simple truth is that there is no way to separate the individual from the system. They are totally intertwined."

Rutger Bregman



Sunset above Somogy province, Hungary. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven





In my previous post, I talked about the 'domino dynamic', and how it can help manifest enormous social changes in a short period of time, often against any reasonable expectation.

According to sociological research, the critical threshold for this 'domino dynamic' and for catalyzing social (as well as technological) upheaval is at about 25 percent of a group or population.

If one quarter of a society fully engages, the entire system can tilt surprisingly quickly and the beliefs and behaviors of the entire group or society can undergo a tremendous evolution in a very short period of time.


In the coming installments of this series, I want to talk about what each of us individually can contribute to the social transitions that will be needed.

But before I start sharing some thoughts on that from my perspective, I wanted to touch on something that is also on the minds of many, and which can also trigger strong emotions and reactivity: the issue of individual responsibility versus systems responsibility.

When in a conversation about what each of us can contribute to change, I am sometimes told that 'only a change of system will bring a solution' and that I should not talk too much about individual responsibility because that is misleading. Individual initiatives are useless as long as the power of multinationals or lobbies is not curtailed'.

When I talk about the need for systemic change in response to current crises, I am sometimes told that we all need to start with ourselves and change our own behavior first, before we talk about systems. 'Improve the world, start with yourself'.


This contradiction is paralyzing.

Many people wonder what difference their action or intention can make if not everyone is on board or if the powers that be on Earth continue to evolve in the wrong direction. Why should I fly less or eat less meat when every week several new coal plants are completed in China?

How can my individual behavior influence the European agricultural subsidies, or exceed the power of multinationals and lobby groups?

Or the other way around: I should not expect any systemic change if I myself do not first become a kind of ascetic and go to extremes to reduce my ecological footprint to zero. It would be hypocritical to ask that agricultural policy change as long as I occasionally eat an egg or drink a cappuccino.


In fact, this contradiction between individual responsibility and the need for systems change is a false contradiction: both are necessary and each is one side of the same essential reality.


As historian and climate thinker Rutger Bregman (also author of the extraordinary book “Human Kind”) says in the quote at the beginning of this post, "The simple truth is that you can't separate individual and system by any means. They are totally intertwined."

Bregman wrote an excellent opinion piece on this in De Correspondent. You can find that piece here. It is highly recommended reading. The article is in Dutch but at the end of this post I will provide a (machine) translation in English).

I will talk more about this apparent contradiction, since it is, in my opinion, one of the great obstacles for our decisiveness and intentions. Either we expect too much that someone else will tackle the problem, or we think that the weight of the world rests entirely on our individual shoulders. We get the impression that we are faced with an impossible task in every respect, and that perspective keeps us in its grip, with the result that we are collectively inclined to do nothing and to give up all hope.


It is indeed simple: every collective action consists of very many individual actions. Every collective belief is made up of many individual beliefs.

If one person goes to a political rally in Brussels or New York, the impact will most likely be very limited. If one million individuals go, it will probably have more impact. But that group of one million does consist of individuals who have each individually made the decision to take individual action.

Societies are a complex collection of individuals, and each individual can influence the system. Look at Greta, and countless others whose intentions and actions shifted the collective to a new dynamic equilibrium.

But also look at any individual who, in the last few years or the last century, has decided on numerous individual actions together with other individuals that, when added up, have come to form a large movement or social phenomenon.


View of the Women's March on Washington from the roof of the Voice of America building - January 21, 2017. Photo: Wikipedia






Moreover, every belief, intention or action can be contagious, in the most literal sense of the word. And with our individual actions we can not only influence our closest contacts and friends, but this 'contagiousness' reaches much further even without our actions being widely publicized.


Rutger Bregman:

"The psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler also speak of our 'Three Degrees of Influence'. With our behavior we not only influence our friends (the first degree), but also the friends of our friends (the second degree) and the friends of those friends (the third degree). That is, if you buy a veg schnitzel today or participate in a climate demonstration, you are also influencing people you will never meet.


Numerous studies show that Christakis and Fowler's contagion theory holds true for a lot of things: happiness, smoking, voting behavior, generosity, obesity, vaccination willingness, you name it. In fact, you have to have a hyperindividualistic view of man to think that as an individual you can't make a difference. Precisely because man is a thoroughly social being, a better world also begins with you.

Of course, I could just as easily argue the other way around: green legislation leads to more profit for sustainable food producers, more profit leads to more innovation and better veg schnitzels, so that even more people buy those tasty veg schnitzels, and so on. But that I can reason it both ways is exactly the point. There is no one 'beginning', because contagion works in all directions."



Historian, activist and climate thinker Rutger Bregman. Photo: Wikipedia




So it is: there is a constant interaction between the individual - that is, you and me - and the collective. Individual intentions and beliefs can bring about changes in the system that, in turn, will begin to influence individual intentions and beliefs.


Radically innovative systems thinkers and evolutionary philosophers such as Jeremy Lent ('The Web Of Meaning'), Ervin Làszlò ('The Intelligence Of The Cosmos') and Charles Eisenstein ('The Ascent Of Humanity') also consistently emphasize the indissoluble connection between each of us and the complex systems of which we are a part, and the fact that any evolution we undergo as individuals has an impact on the collective. The separation between "self" and "world" is an illusion.

That we once came to believe something else has many causes, but it is not a natural given that we believe something else. What many people believe and feel - that we cannot make a difference as individuals, that we are a kind of 'victim' of the collective, that trying to change the collective is futile work, that it is simply the most reasonable and sensible thing to do to go with the flow, that inevitable cause-effect sequences inevitably produce the things we now observe in the world and that there is little we can do about it - has to do with other collective beliefs that have to do with our overarching worldview. It is a story that fits seamlessly into a larger story. That larger story I would like to explore in a series of essays I am working on regarding our ‘cosmology,’ the larger picture of the world and ourselves that underlies many things we believe on an everyday level. We need to change our story, and many people are already doing that. This is also one of the ways in which we help to change the world: to scrutinize our beliefs and, if necessary, choose or create a different story.



Jeremy Lent, Ervin László and Charles Eisenstein






Our collective consciousness is made up of countless individual units of consciousness, and the two are connected in countless ways, some of which the latest developments in science tell us are very surprising. It follows that every individual change in consciousness has an impact on the collective - even if it happens in silence.


Let us explore the stories in which we can all make a difference again.

And the stories that are beginning to emerge are very beautiful and powerful, I can already tell. They are stories that, supported by the latest developments in quantum physics, evolutionary biology and quantum biology, astrophysics and others, are beginning to paint a new picture of our essential nature, our potential, and our connection to the complex systems of which we are a part.


Thus, a precondition for being able to take action as an individual is to believe that individual actions matter. Without that belief, few will move to new intentions or actions.

As historian, philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) put it:


"Act as if what you're doing makes a difference. It does."


In the next blog post, more on the second important decision I believe everyone can make to be part of change.


With this I say goodbye for now, and wish you a fulfilling week,

All the best to you,

Filip


 

Questions for contemplation


Do you believe that major social changes are possible in the near future? Do you believe they can make a decisive difference in our evolution?


Do you believe that individual change has an effect on and is connected to collective change?


Do you believe your choices and intentions can make a difference?


Sunrise above Zeeland, The Netherlands. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven



Translation of the article by Rutger Bregman (Translation by Deepl Translate)



"Yes, it's all the fault of Shell, KLM and "the system. But shall we talk about you now?"


A few years ago I was invited to the summer drinks party of publishing house De Bezige Bij. It was a beautiful, sun-drenched afternoon in the courtyard garden of the monumental building on the Van Miereveldstraat in Amsterdam, and I walked around a bit bewildered. The reception turned out to be a who-is-who of progressive Amsterdam. Leading thinkers and writers, big names I knew from my reading list, were just walking around.


After the first drinks it was time for dinner. On the menu: asparagus with potatoes and ham. I don't eat meat so I was a bit unhappy with the plate that was shoved in front of me. I looked around, but was apparently the only one. I asked the server if there was also a vegetarian option. "You prefer to eat fish?


An uncomfortable silence had fallen around me. I sipped my drink while the rest of the table started eating and something was being thought of for me in the kitchen. Here I was, with the intellectual elite of the Netherlands, with literary giants who wrote thick, well-researched books about the greatest challenges of our time, from climate change to inequality. And I was the only one not eating animals.


Maybe I wasn't looking right, maybe I was sitting at the wrong table, but I've often had to think back to that moment. How could I feel so elated here? Shouldn't these people, with all their knowledge and ideals, have stopped eating meat a long time ago?


The left-wing indulgence


A better world does not start with you - that adage has become fashionable among progressive opinion makers in recent years. We should first change the world.


Consumer activism is a side road that not only contributes little,' wrote Roxane van Iperen last year in Vrij Nederland,

You can find Roxane van Iperen's essay here. 'but even gets in the way of tackling climate change.' Sander Schimmelpenninck, columnist for the Volkskrant, agreed:

Sander Schimmelpenninck's column. 'With flight shaming, vegetarian schnitzels and linen bags we are not going to stop climate change (...) and the suggestion that we are, only delays essential changes.' Jaap Tielbeke, journalist at De Groene Amsterdammer, published a book this summer

Read a pre-publication of it in De Groene Amsterdammer. with the hardly concealing title A better environment does not start with yourself.


Now I must confess that I am quite sensitive to this kind of reasoning. Isn't it agonizing to hear conservative gurus talk about "individual responsibility" while ignoring poverty, inequality and their own dumb luck? Isn't it maddening when Shell, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola prattle on about consumerism, healthy eating, and exercise, while they themselves make billions from oil, fast food, and sugar water?


Call it the right-wing indulgence: as soon as structural injustice is involved, you cry out that success is a choice and people should take their own responsibility.


But since that afternoon in Amsterdam, I wonder if the reverse is also true. Would there also be a left-wing indulgence?


I'm talking about the idealist who, as soon as it comes to personal responsibility, cries out that we must first talk about the structures. That first we need an analysis which will show that it is all the fault of the fossil industry and the multinationals, the advertisements and the algorithms, capitalism and neoliberalism - everything so that we don't have to look in the mirror.



A better environment also starts with yourself


Where does change actually begin?

You don't have to be a professor to understand that this is actually the wrong question. Change can start anywhere. On your plate and in the factory, at home and at work, in Delfzijl and in The Hague, in the boardroom and at Uncle Sjon's birthday party. The simple truth is that there is no way to separate the individual from the system. They are totally intertwined.


Let me make this point more concrete with what I, pompously, would like to call the First Law of Social Change: good example leads the way.


Take the purchase of solar panels. A few years ago, Google launched the website Project Sunroof, where you can see

Project Sunroof only works if you live in the US. who in your neighborhood has solar panels. One thing that immediately stands out is that those panels are not randomly scattered throughout a neighborhood, but pop up (like a virus) in clusters.

The website Vox.com published an informative article on the infectiousness of solar panels. If you buy solar panels, the chances of your neighbors putting them on their roofs also become a lot higher.


Not long ago, research by two American economists showed that generating green power is even more contagious than consuming alcohol and tobacco. The bigger and more visible your installation, the more people will copy you. And that, in turn, can have consequences. More demand for more solar panels means more profit for companies trading in solar panels, which also makes the green lobby in The Hague and Brussels stronger and increases the chances of green legislation. Before you know it, it has become personal politics.


And yes, this reasoning also applies to vegetarian schnitzels, train vacations, electric cars, and you name it. Those who buy more veg schnitzels make meat substitutes more profitable, which gives sustainable food producers more money for innovation, which makes the meat substitutes even better, which makes even more people eat those veg schnitzels, which makes the lobby of veg companies stronger, which increases support for a meat tax - and so on.


Psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler also speak of our "Three Degrees of Influence. With our behavior, we influence not only our friends (the first degree), but also the friends of our friends (the second degree) and the friends of them (the third degree). That is, if you buy a veg schnitzel today or participate in a climate demonstration, you are also influencing people you will never meet.


Numerous studies show that Christakis and Fowler's contagion theory holds true for a lot of things: happiness, smoking, voting behavior, generosity, obesity, vaccination readiness, and you name it. In fact, you have to have a hyperindividualistic view of man to think that as an individual you can't make a difference. Precisely because man is a thoroughly social being, a better world also begins with you.



Before you measure others: look in the mirror


Of course I could just as easily argue the other way around: green legislation leads to more profit for sustainable food producers, more profit leads to more innovation and better veg schnitzels, so that even more people buy those tasty veg schnitzels, and so on. But that I can reason it both ways is exactly the point. There is no one "beginning," because contagion works in all directions.


We can even increase our own contagion. This can be done with the help of the Second Law of Social Change: better examples lead to even more followers. In other words: practice what you preach.


At the beginning of his book (A better environment doesn't start with yourself), journalist Jaap Tielbeke writes about the "ecological collision course of the international aviation industry" and "the need for a lightning-fast energy transition. He then admits that he does not buy green electricity and still flies to Italy for a few tenners.


I had little desire to continue reading after that.


If cynical people understand anything better than many idealists, it is how deadly hypocrisy can be. People without principles are invariably obsessed with the hypocrisy of those who do believe in something. A good example is American presenter Tucker Carlson, star of Fox News and often named as Donald Trump's successor. In his latest book, Ship of Fools (2018), an entire chapter is devoted to climate change. In it, Carlson does not position himself as a climate denier or an opponent of the energy transition - none of that interests him. He is interested in the hypocrisy of people who pretend to be interested.


Al Gore and his villa. Hillary Clinton and her private jets. Leonardo DiCaprio who took a luxurious flight of 12,000 kilometers to receive an award from an environmental club. The reaction on the progressive side is then: ah, but that's not the point. DiCaprio's emissions are "a fart in the wind" when you look at the big picture.


But of course it does matter. DiCaprio's hypocrisy undermines his effectiveness as a climate activist. Worse, his behavior is also contagious: people who see that a hip movie star has no problem with luxury yachts and private flights are more likely to allow themselves to fly to the sun for a few bucks or book a trip on a polluting cruise ship. That means more revenue for cruise and airline companies, stronger lobbying against green legislation, and so on.


How to do it shows the most effective climate activist of our time: Greta Thunberg. For the Swedish teenager it is crystal clear that we are on an ecological collision course. But before she took others to task, she looked in the mirror.

See this stunning profile of Greta Thunberg in The New Yorker. She quit meat. She quit dairy. She decided not to fly anymore, something she also convinced her mother (a famous opera singer) to do. Then the Thunberg family bought solar panels and an electric car, which they use as little as possible.


Only then did the Swedish start her school strike.


Greta Thunberg is the most effective climate activist of our time because she lives what she says. Her protest is not a hobby, not vanity in disguise, not a business model with lucrative sponsorship deals and speaking engagements. Maybe that's why cynics like Tucker Carlson have such a hard time getting a hold of her.

Vox.com devoted an entire article to this phenomenon: why do right-wing figures have such a hard time getting a hold of Greta? Where DiCaprio went to pick up his environmental award on a private plane, Thunberg crossed the Atlantic on a sailboat. When the audience interrupted her with applause during her thunderous sermon before the United Nations, she did not look flattered but irritated: she had not come for applause.

See also this analysis of Greta's performance in the Chicago Tribune.


Before long, the newspapers were full of reports about the "Thunberg effect. Her protest went viral, children riled up their parents, companies started spending more money on sustainability and politicians tumbled over each other launching green plans. The world is too complicated to say what would have happened without Greta Thunberg. But no one can deny that her impact has been enormous.



The next step: radicalize yourself


It is not surprising that the famous Swedish schoolgirl first became a vegan, and only then went on strike. After all, with your actions you can not only infect others, but also yourself.


See here the Third Law of Social Change: good example makes one radical. Those who stop eating meat may also start to question dairy. Those who fly less are more likely to vote for a green party. Those who buy solar panels are more likely to participate in a climate demonstration. At this level, too, everything is connected. By doing what you say, you can become even more committed to your own cause.


I experienced this myself when I stopped eating animals four years ago. At first it wasn't too bad how hard it was. I was late to the game, and because many brave vegans had gone before me (making more and more money go to veg innovation and making those veg schnitzels much tastier), a meatless diet was perfectly doable. I was delighted that some people around me had now also stopped eating meat - had I perhaps contributed to their infection?


But what I hadn't thought about beforehand, was that I was soon confronted with the next challenge. As I read up on the subject, I realized that I also had to stop dairy products.


And that proved considerably more difficult.



Why do ideals have to be fun, too?


Here we stumble upon the Fourth and, promisedly, final Law of Social Change: the best example is the hardest to set.

History shows why. Today it is socially accepted to work as a mother, but in the 1950s it evoked considerable resistance. Nowadays it takes little courage to ask a smoker to light that cigarette outside, but in the 1950s - when everyone smoked - you were laughed at. Nowadays it is brave to come out of the closet as a young gay or lesbian, but fifty years ago it was much braver.


In that respect, much of our consumer activism is very easy. Solar panels and electric cars are contagious, fine, but the well-educated middle class also tends to ease their consciences with - I'll just mention - grass-fed natural meat from Drenthe herds in ecological vacation homes on Vlieland. As a rule, it is these people who are polluting (for example, it turns out that VVDers, GroenLinksers and D66ers fly the most, while PVVers, SPers and 50-plussers fly the least).


A good rule of thumb is that if your ideals don't require sacrifices, they may not represent much either. With that said, not everyone has the same amount of carrying capacity. The more wealth, power and knowledge you have, the greater your sacrifices should be.


That serious ideals hurt is well seen among vegans: a 2015 Canadian study found that vegans were viewed even more negatively than atheists, immigrants and homosexuals. The only group that evoked even more dislike were drug addicts.


Where does all this hatred of vegans come from? Psychologists think that the principles of the vegan - even when they eat silently from their drums - are perceived by many people as an attack. Deep down, we fear they are right, and little is more confronting than the goodness of others.


Because shame feels uncomfortable, it's tempting to conclude that it doesn't work. In recent years, a caravan of columnists have passed by dismissing shame as "a rotten-emotion," "unproductive," and "paralyzing.


But historically that analysis is hard to sustain. That more and more people turned away from smokers was a crucial prelude to the smoking ban. That more and more companies were shamed for their lack of diversity led to a women's quota for publicly traded companies. More flight shaming now strengthens calls for a flight tax, just as more meat shaming may increase support for a meat tax. (Now a meat ban is still unthinkable, but so was a smoking ban fifty years ago.)


No, when people agitate against flight, meat, delivery, cappuccino, cruise, barbecue, cheese, and/or Uber shame, they mainly mean that they find it annoying. And yes, shame is a rotten feeling. But what if that's exactly what they mean? Who says changing the world always has to be fun? Shame works because it feels unpleasant. Discomfort is the fuel of progress.


Perhaps, then, it would be good - in addition to all our critical analyses of the great social structures - to look in the mirror a little more often. To make things a little more difficult for ourselves, even if it doesn't feel nice, cozy or pleasant. 'Changing society is not the hardest thing there is', said

I found this quote in Bas Heijne's impressive essay 'World changers' (2017). Nelson Mandela in his last year as president of South Africa. 'The hardest thing is to change yourself.'





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