A woman at the hotel I stay at in the north of France sees a coffee mug spill on the counter. Actually, it was from my mug. Having seen the environmental awareness and sustainability notices everywhere in the hotel, I decide to leave the mark for the staff to clean with a cleaning cloth, rather than using the paper napkins at the counter. A few minutes later, the woman reaches for a bundle of napkins to clean the liquid, as she passes by.
To me, this is an example of the reality of the mindset of environmental change. The notices are everywhere around the hotel, describing ways to save water and paper, to be more sustainable, yet what does this actually mean and how can it be implemented across the board, not just by not washing towels every day.
Still we push on, implementing piecemeal changes to the way we do things. This has some effect, undisputed. However, I believe, to achieve the real scope of changes that are required a cultural shift is needed. This can only happen by people not just going through a range of memorised actions, but acting from the heart, based on a higher awareness, a deeper understanding. In the same way that a combination of our thoughts and physiological prompts guide us to seek food regularly, implementing sustainability requires a Nature-driven instinctual response from all of us.
How do we achieve such a cultural shift? It’s such a complex change from our over-use and reliance upon natural resources, made increasingly difficult by the history and reality of international development and colonialism, where nations have plundered others to create their wealth, and now those poorer nations seek their turn but are countered by global messages of sustainability and a drive toward a reduction in our carbon footprint.
I believe that such a cultural shift can only be achieved through grass roots participation and empowerment. Valuing everyday people’s contribution to political decision making is critical for it is the top down mentality which has created this situation and which continues to alienate poor people from the wealthy who have been privileged as being considered, by decision makers, as the key to wealth creation and distribution. The reality, of course, is that the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow, even as proponents of the free market system still promote these systems as being the way to increase opportunities for all.
Facilitating this cultural shift is about participatory approaches to the way people are involved in their local communities, and the relationship between this culture of participation and regional, national and global decision-making. We are mired in a mindset of “this is how it is” and that we must continue to develop the current systems in place through reform and tinkering. However, this does not take into account that, to me, the systems of representative democracy and free market capitalism are fundamentally flawed, unable to effectively distribute wealth equally and look after those most margenalised who struggle to source food on a daily basis and to maintain their cultural identity.
Bookchin, in his article of 1992 Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview, talks about both left and right thinkers having a “lack of a politics that will carry people beyond the limits established by the status quo.” And while Bookchin’s concept of participatory decision making may lack detail and specific means of implementation, this is where people experienced in this area can be involved.
While critique of the issues associated with the way our world operates is, in many ways, not difficult, given the problems we face, a viable holistic solution is another story. Overhauling global systems, particularly if this includes the creation of a new ways to manage economies and decision making, is an enormous task, complexified by existing power relationships and vested interests. Imagining the path to such changes may seem overwhelming, however I believe there is great value in visioning the desired result and focusing on this as a starting point, rather than the path itself. Raghunath Mashelkar, an Indian engineer, in his TED Talk describes the way in which innovation must be achieved through a lens of radical thinking, where we are able to conceptualise the future by first visioning what we seek to achieve. Rather than focusing on the inherent problems being experienced, the vision emerges through developing not only a solution to the problem, but also the way in which this problem is linked to others, and the opportunities that meeting such an issue can also address broader systemic and cultural situations. He concludes his talk with a metaphor he calls “convex lens leadership” which describes the way in which leaders need to facilitate the shared nature of global issues and develop solutions which bring together these issues, rather than further fragmenting them and the people who are involved.
So, in facilitating a cultural shift in terms of sustainability, what does this mean? Essentially, in my view, we have far more opportunity for success if people truly understand not only the nature of the problems, but the ways in which these problems can be met with solutions. By facilitating such awareness and supporting the means for associated action, we can create an activated populace, prepared for and directly responsible for necessary changes, rather than advocating a set of actions that people not only do not truly understand but also may resent. Why resent? Such changes usually represent some form of limit, perceived or actual, to our resource use and, in my experience, resource use is tightly bound with people’s sense of personal empowerment and participation in society, on a daily basis. In most capitalist economies, the majority of people’s ability to feel some form of influence and involvement is limited to choices about what to purchase and from whom.
Of course, there are people working on this level in the way they facilitate community and social change work – through the arts, community organising, general support agency delivery and in many other ways. But not until we are able to have genuine conversations about visionary and necessary ways of facilitating change, free from limits associated with stereotyped pigeon holing and misunderstandings, and with genuine connection to the meaningful expression of culture and spirituality, can there really be a sustainable future for us all.