No more individual vs collective action: we need both to protect our climate

| 13th November 2017
The Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard, Arctic calving into the sea. (c) Gary Bembridge
The Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard, Arctic calving into the sea. (c) Gary Bembridge
If we want to see sustained collective action, we must work to uncover the stories that bind us and call us to care in the first place -- after all, the ‘corporations’ that we attack our also our neighbours. Nature Editor ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT reflects on the false dichotomy of ‘us vs them’, and ‘individual vs collective’ action in responding to the climate crisis.
If we are to fix the crisis we need human stories that remind us who we are, what we love, and how we’re connected, so that we can generate sustained collective action.

An article by Martin Lukacs in The Guardian argued that to fight climate change we must stop being preoccupied with how we personally live, and instead must tackle corporate power collectively.

“While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant," he wrote. "The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71 percent. You tinker with those pens or that panel; they go on torching the planet.

"The freedom of these corporations to pollute – and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response – is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last forty years, against the possibility of collective action.”

Our own terms

Lukacs smartly argues that neoliberal ideologies stand in the way when collective action is needed more than ever. Neoliberalism has exalted the individual at the expense of our collective bonds: we are encouraged to think of ourselves as consumers, not citizens.

And so we are told to tackle climate change with our personal cash (if we can afford it) and not our community. Being a ‘green’ consumer might help us to feel less guilty, but it is only collective action that will effectively tackle the climate crisis, Lukacs says.

I agree with him, yet it’s not helpful to suggest that fixing the climate crisis involves a battle of us vs them, goodies vs baddies, or a choice between collective or individual. If we are to fix the crisis we need human stories that remind us who we are, what we love, and how we’re connected, so that we can generate sustained collective action.

I recently read one of these stories in Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Author and former ‘green activist’ Kingsnorth became an environmentalist “because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places, and the world beyond the human”.

But disillusionment struck, and Kingsnorth chose a life of self-sufficiency instead. He now nurtures his own small patch of nature with his family - far from the hands of “our obsession with climate change” which builds solar farms and wind farms and machinery that allows us to “sustain human civilisation” of approaching 10 billion on our own terms.

If we are to fix the crisis we need human stories that remind us who we are, what we love, and how we’re connected, so that we can generate sustained collective action.


Kingsnorth echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation”. But rather than protest to ‘save the world’ as his younger self so passionately did, Kingsnorth decided to help create new stories for our time - to understand where we’ve come from, and where we might be headed - even if that means facing a dark abyss.

So Kingsnorth and colleague Dougald Hine created the ‘Dark Mountain Project’ in 2009, with the ‘Uncivilisation’ manifesto at its core, which consists of eight guiding principles, e.g:

"Principle 2: We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’...

"Principle 4: We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality."

True to the manifesto, Kingsnorth highlights story and myth in Confessions. Looking at ancient drawings in a cave in France, or at the English green men who resisted the Norman conquest of their ways of life, Kingsnorth takes us through mysterious landscapes of nature-lovers, storytellers and empire-resistors.

Tackle the crisis

He conjures EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful when he talks about people who dwelt as part of nature, not separate from it. He encourages giving a voice to wilderness (which might have something to say to us, if only we would listen).

This individual ‘small’ (which includes stories of his family’s composting toilet, and his scything practice) feels romanticised against the behemoth of climate change, politics, and collective activism. But rather than see small as escapism (which he has been criticised for), Kingsnorth sees it as necessary. It’s where we call home, and learn to love a place.

His stories of place and connection sparkle with an individual inspiration that can only lead to collective action. It reminds me of the solitary stories of Annie Dillard as she explores her beloved patch of wild in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, decades ago.

Yet those stories have no doubt catalysed countless individual and collective responses that continue to protect the natural world. And so any argument that presents the solutions to climate change as an individual vs. collective choice feels too simplistic, not whole enough.

I read Lukacs’ piece with a fire -- Let’s fight! Let me at ‘em! -- but then a tiredness descends that I recognise from so many articles I have read before; the tiredness that comes with being told there is a ‘better’ way of solving the climate crisis; that comes with the thought that we spend so much time talking about the right and wrong way to tackle the crisis that we mistakenly feel we’ve actually done the work, when all we’ve done is talk.

Corporate powers 

And to suggest that individual efforts simply make us feel “happier and healthier” downplays the fact that these efforts add up, and corporations must respond. We cannot disconnect small actions from mass movements. Each fosters understanding of and commitment to the other.

Kingsnorth’s Confessions, and other heart-led stories and people I come across, blow the cobwebs out of that dichotomy of either / or; his words are poetic yet essential, contemplative yet cutting.

Kingsnorth (and alongside him, authors like Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Macfarlane and many others) calls us to look honestly into the void  - individually and collectively, assessing the helpfulness of a blindly optimistic future versus a hopefully mysterious, unknown one. It’s ok not to know what comes next - but we don’t need to do that alone.

Through nature and wonder; through communities like the Dark Mountain project and by asking the right questions, we can tentatively and bravely say we don’t know what’s in store, but we’re willing to look, and to celebrate the uniqueness of our individual strengths and stories, as we walk there together.

It doesn’t have to be either / or. So let’s tackle the corporate powers collectively.

Understanding and alternatives

But let’s also leave space for those stories and practices that sparkle and shout to us, which call us to care in the first place. When we get face-to-face with those corporate powers, I think it is these stories, our shape, and our sense of place that will help us hold our ground, and link arm-to-arm with our neighbours.

And we must not forget that corporate powers are made up of millions of humans; they are not distinct from us -- they are also our neighbours.

They are us, just as we are all nature. If we reject the false dichotomy of individual vs. collective, then maybe we’ll work to uncover the stories that bind us, and the empathy, understanding and alternatives that could save us - and I mean the ‘us’ that includes humans as part of nature, not separate from it.

This Author:

Elizabeth Wainwright is the Ecologist's Nature Editor. She spends her time between Devon, London, and wild spaces. She also co-leads a global community development charity, Arukah Network. You can read the full Dark Mountain manifesto here.



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