This post is for people who have been wrestling with the tension between ”We’re all in this together” and “But what can I do?” which is to say, people like me. People who feel a sense of responsibility but shrink beneath the sheer size of the problem, who are sometimes bewildered by the choices on offer about individual action and group action, and how we decide where to put our efforts.
This piece reflects my personal experience, and is not intended as a statement of CAT principles or policies.
Big problem vs little solutions. You may be aware that the vast majority of carbon emissions come from massive multi-national corporations (mostly in the fossil fuel business). The actions of any individual person aren’t going to offset that, no matter how assiduously we plant trees and ride our bikes.
And yet — tree-planting and bike riding need to happen. These things are part of the fabric of change. Individual actions do have a place, even if it’s only to keep us engaged and motivated to work on the bigger solutions our planet needs. I look at these little lifestyle shifts as getting into practice for the sustainable future. It certainly isn’t hurting anything for me to reduce red meat, walk to the store instead of driving, wait another year to replace my cell phone, or encourage less single-use plastic in the office cafeteria.
That all said, if you want to take effective action, you’re going to want to join a group. Group action multiplies individual actions, whether it’s through workplace organizing, groups such as CAT, or other avenues. But which one? Climate activism is everywhere, with groups offering different approaches at a scale that varies from your town council to international efforts.
This article is not going to extol one over the other, but does put forth some considerations for deciding what kind of group to join.
Don’t be afraid to shop around. You might need to check out quite a few groups before you find one that’s a good fit for you. That’s okay! Diversity is strength. Do you prefer a small local organization or a big international one? Do you like the idea of direct action, or are you (like me) terrified of confrontation? If in-person events are safe for your locale, climate rallies tend to have a lot of people handing out literature for local organizations, and can be a great way to meet people and get an enthusiasm buzz going. If you’re more comfortable with online interactions, a simple search will turn up dozens of options.
On the flip side, do not feel bad about backing out of groups that don’t fit. You do not have to continue reading every organization newsletter, every Slack channel, or every Facebook group you’ve ever touched for the rest of your life. (This is advice I am giving myself.) Focus on one thing that you can actually do, instead of letting twelve things you won’t do pile up causing anxiety.
Be realistic about what you can commit. Do you have money but no time? Time but no money? Not much of either one? Do you already know a lot about climate, or feel like you need to self-educate? Make a resource budget before you sign up for any projects (you might be able to use this information to narrow down the options in terms of which group to join). You probably already have a job and other responsibilities. Burnout helps no one.
Unless you’re already planning to change careers, don’t sign up for something that requires you to learn an entire new field. I have lost count of the online classes I have signed up for in a fit of optimism, only to find that I don’t have time to follow through. If I went to every meeting of every group I’ve looked at, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else.
Be creative about what you can offer. One of the things I grapple with is the feeling that everything that can be done is already being done by people more capable than myself. To counteract that, take an inventory of your skills, interests, and resources. Don’t look at your life in terms of your work history alone, but try to view yourself from different angles. Small local groups especially can benefit from pooling resources.
All give, no take? Whatever you involve yourself in should provide feedback about the group’s efforts, and some kind of reward from interacting with it. It’s easy to get demoralized when it feels like the things you’re doing don’t have any effect. Demoralization in the face of this crisis is already a problem, so make sure that you don’t get yourself involved in something that turns into an energy-sucking chore. We all have too many of those. In my opinion, this work should feel good; if it doesn’t, figure out what’s missing from the equation. Which brings me to my final piece of advice….
Change is okay. There’s a concept from Open Space known as “the law of mobility,” which comes down to the idea that if you’re neither learning from nor contributing to the conversation you’re in, feel free to move along and find another one.