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How Change Actually Happens

A person holding a handful of soil with a plant growing out of it

In the book, We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now, Sami Grover discusses that we should do what we can in our own lives to help the environment, but that we also need to target those actions so that they can create systemic change. Today, we share an excerpt from the book that talks about change and how to make it happen.

Excerpt from the Book

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is an author, speaker, and educator who has spent a long time thinking about how social change actually happens. Introduced to me by Minh Dang— a mutual friend and a former professional collaborator— Austin was billed as being smart, busy, and having an exuberantly rocking beard. Minh was not wrong on any of these counts.

Describing himself as a structuralist, Austin told me from the get-go that he believed there are much bigger forces at play than our own individual lifestyle choices. Expanding on that idea, he explained that social change is the product of a powerful and complex interplay of forces, and that these range from specific economic and technological changes to gut-level popular reactions to whoever is in power at the time.

When we managed to connect over Zoom in the summer of 2020, I asked Austin why he thought that so many climate-concerned individuals— particularly in the West— were often drawn toward taking action on a personal level. He politely suggested that I might consider asking a slightly different question:

America’s ethos— plus consumerism— breeds narcissism. We’re just high-strain narcissists. But who cares if people have an over-developed sense of agency? It might be a lie, but let’s not even worry about that. Rather than telling them it’s a lie, how can we instead accelerate it and point it in the right direction?

As our discussion progressed, I referred Austin to the idea— discussed in Chapter 9— that vegans get criticized not because people disagree with their ethics, but rather because many of us who agree with them can’t quite summon the same level of commitment. I pondered whether there was some way for animal rights or environmental food activists to neutralize that reaction, and his eyes lit up. Rather than try to neutralize it or worry about it at all, he argued, activists would do well to view it as a sign of pent-up demand for their ideas. Instead of spending time trying to convince guilty meat eaters to go 100 percent vegan, we might be better placed trying to change the context within which they are making their dietary choices:

Don’t try to convince people to be vegan, make a goddamn veggie burger that tastes like blood. So if you’re thinking about what people should do, one of the most important things they can do is to change the structures that shape their behaviors.

Austin’s assertion— that it was better to focus on changing structures, rather than on changing our own behaviors within those structures— got to the heart of why I had started writing this book in the first place. It also summed up a theme that had become apparent throughout the conversations this project had led me to.

It’s not that we don’t need people to reduce their meat intake, ride a bike, or limit their flying. It’s just that simply asking, encouraging, or even berating them to do so is not necessarily going to work. Given that our behaviors are shaped so strongly by the environment we live in, we should be focusing the majority of our efforts on where we have the greatest opportunity to shape that environment for all of those around us.

Not only did this perspective point to a more effective way to do change, but it also— I surmised— offered a way out of some of the guilt and self-blame that many climate-aware individuals grapple with.

If you are interested in getting a copy of this book or another New Society title, our Celebrate Earth Day All Week Long Sale is on from April 22 to 28, 2022. Get 35% off by using the code Earth35.

Author Sami Grover

Sami Grover has spent half his life trying to live a low-carbon lifestyle. He's written about everything from composting to e-bikes, yet he's seen only marginal success in reducing his own impact. Active in the sphere of good-for-the-world business, he has developed branding projects for clients including Burt's Bees, Dogwood Alliance, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Sami lives in Durham, NC.

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