Nourishing The Global Garden: Why Personal Change is Not Enough to Tackle the Energy and Overconsumption Crises

By Adam J. Pearson

In a discussion on the impact of overconsumption, overpopulation, and high carbon emissions, Rania Harb stated that she hoped for an increase in “consciousness regarding what we humans have been doing and how much we have been exploiting our earth.” To this hopeful expression, she added a statement of faith in the power of individual changes of consciousness as the ground for social change. ” In the spirit of Gandhi’s possibly apocryphal statement that we must “be the change we wish to see in the world,” Rania stated that “change has to start within each and every one of us nonetheless.”

To a considerable extent, I share Rania’s  belief in the importance of personal changes of consciousness, worldview, and perspective.  I have pursued such changes throughout my life with great passion and enthusiasm.  If we wish to reduce global consumerism, it can be helpful to first shift our own perspective on consumption and step out of the vicious cycle of ‘crave-purchase-dispose’ into which we are often swept up.  If we wish to reduce global overpopulation, we must first turn to our own reproductive practices; how many children are we having? If we believe that the world must move beyond dependence on fossil fuels, then we must ourselves reduce our carbon emissions.  Beliefs in global change have implications for individual behaviour.  If we expect change in the world, consistency requires us to expect individual change of ourselves as well.

With that said, my once enthusiastic faith in the power of personal change as a catalyst for global change has become somewhat dampened by the realization that a few individuals changing their personal consciousness, opinions, and habits are insufficient to bring about real transformations on a global scale.  So long as we are only a few renegade non-consumerists in a sea of millions of consumerists, what real impact do our personal choices have? Unless personal changes to our consumption practices happen on a wide scale, for example, they tend not to produce many significant tangible results.  Personal change risks only changing ‘my world’ while leaving the larger world beyond my private practices untouched.

To put the matter bluntly, individual change is definitely important, but unless it gets translated into political policy and economic budgets, it’s impotent.  While it’s important for us to plant the seed of change individually, seeds that remain in the ground fail to bear fruit; changes that remain ‘individual’ fail to produce real shifts in the world beyond the individual. Just as we nurture the seeds in our gardens to bring forth healthy and beautiful plants, so must we nurture the seeds of ‘personal change’ through collective discussion and significant shifts in policy and spending.

With this kind of nurturing–nurturing though action, not mere talk–the seeds planted by personal transformations can grow into plants that will not only flower into concrete political, social, technological, and economic changes, but also spread their seeds to form other, related plants. These ‘other plants’ are revolutions related to the plants from whose seeds they sprung; in this case, they are continuations of the movements towards the ‘greening of energy’ and the ‘transformation of consumerism’ that we need to support.

In closing, a change of consciousness is good, but it’s not enough. We need political action supported by million and billion-dollar budgets. We need shifts in the value systems that falsely assume that economic development and product manufacturing can increase forever and without limit. We need funding for technologies that support alternative energy sources and we need our governments to make such projects a priority. Of course, we cannot expect them to do so if we do not convince them that it is a prime concern of their voting population and a condition on which the maintenance of their power depends. This is where the vocalization of our ‘change from within’ in larger political processes comes in to play.  While the health of a single plant (the individual) is good, we must not stop with it; it is not enough.  We must move beyond it, through our political, technological, and economic structures, to nurture the global garden of which the individual plant is but a single part.

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