There is an acceptable narrative about social change: that individual choices are the starting point, and that those choices add up, and that if enough people make those choices, change happens. That is a very attractive narrative, because it says that my choices matter. It says that what I do is part of a grand democratic society where, if my choices have majority support, the system will improve. It says that if I use reusable shopping bags, and I buy an electric car, I am making an impact.
That narrative is also, I think, wrong. Or, at least misleading.
It isn’t wrong in the sense that I am not making an impact—I am, albeit a small one. It also isn’t wrong in the sense that our choices don’t add up—they do, and if we all decide to drive electric cars, that will make a pretty noticeable impact.
As I see it, that narrative is wrong because it pretends that individual choices and systemic choices are the same, and they absolutely are not.
I’d like to drive an electric car, so let’s talk about that as an example. Individual choices could add up enough to move us primarily to electric vehicles. After all, I really only have the option to drive an electric car because enough other people also want to do that. Because they choose to ask for electric vehicles, and buy them when they become available, they are collectively creating a demand. That demand increases the number of electric vehicles available, drives innovation, and (eventually) will bring the cost down and the reliability up to the point that I, in cold, hilly New England, will be able to effectively drive electric.
That would make a pretty big impact. Except our individual choices to do that, while necessary, don’t automatically fix the other half: where the electricity comes from. Short of everyone installing solar on their houses (which isn’t feasible for renters, apartment owners, or three-quarters of the US population given their income), our individual choices can’t decide where to source the electricity that runs those cars. We can’t only buy electricity from solar and wind and hydro instead of coal and oil, because the choice of where our power comes from happens mainly at the industry level, not the individual level. If we want to change that part of the system, we have to influence systemic choices.
Now you might be thinking that you cast your vote, and thus your individual choices do add up to that systemic choice. Unfortunately not—while your vote has impact on who makes the systemic choices, it has a lot less impact on what choice they make. In representative government, you get to review your representatives at the overall performance level, not the individual choice level. If you want them to make an individual choice, you have to go out of your way to pressure them into it, and you have to do that above and beyond voting for or against them.
Nor is influencing one representative enough to change a policy. Policies are compromised, watered-down, overturned, traded, and otherwise mucked about by a whole lot of people who aren’t invested in them as a first priority. So really, you need to influence a group of representatives such that a given policy, like sourcing your state’s electricity from renewables, makes it to the top of the list long enough to get through the legislative process, and then you also have to influence your federal representatives so that they don’t torpedo your state choice by subsidizing dirty energy instead of clean energy.
None of these things happen via individual choices. Instead, these things happen via collective action to influence systemic choices. Lots of people know this, and that’s why they attend rallies and marches and protests, and write their congresspeople and state representatives, and generally get involved. That’s why they repeatedly tell you that who you elect locally matters—not because it controls the final systemic choice, but because it determines how much influence is needed to affect that choice.
Not everyone needs to focus on those things, but we do all need to recognize their necessity and support the people who are doing them. We need to pay attention, and not complacently think that because we are doing a few good individual things, we are doing our part to change society.
Individual choices are half the battle, and a great place to start. If you’re already doing that, good for you! But systemic choices are where big things change. Systemic choices are the levers that move industries, governments, and societies.
So we can’t let ourselves think those two things are the same, or we end up running very fast indeed to stay in basically the same place. Our individual choices get us moving; but systemic choices get us off the treadmill and into the world.
Image Credit: Disseminations