Significant Concepts, Considered.
The Buzz Words blog series explores concepts that are critical to the environmental movement, and to the world at large. This series does not offer definitions or proclamations. This is our chance to think about, and bring to light, some tricky and timely concepts.
During the liberal euphoria that was the 2008 presidential election, I remember campaigning in the conservative leaning and contentious state of Pennsylvania where I saw lots of pro- and anti-Obama swag. One that stood out to me the most was a bumper sticker that read, “I’ll keep my GOD, Guns, Freedom & Money. You can keep your CHANGE!” I saw that and remember thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. The ‘change’ slogan isn’t just silly and vapid, it’s a concept that is at once so broad and undeniable, it means practically nothing at all.” Change is. What else can you say? People fear it and long for it. They bust ass to bring it about a different reality, and fight just as hard to prevent a new reality from taking root.
So what do we, as the frontline of the movement for ecological justice, think about change?
Well, like everyone, we want some things to change and some things to be preserved. We want to change our reliance on fossil fuel. We want to preserve indigenous knowledge. We want to change the industrial food system. We want to preserve biodiversity. We want to change personal behavior and systems. We want to change the world, damn it, but just the bad parts! So what, exactly, is our theory of change? How do we think change – on that great big cultural societal level – happens? How can we plan our efforts so that we can be effective in bringing about the new civilization we want to see?
The truth is, we do bring about some change, while some change happens to us. But which one’s which, how can we tell the difference, and how can we be strategic about our efforts unless we understand this difference? It seems to me that while there is no shortage of tactics employed by the environmental movement, there are no prevailing theories of change to lean on as we make our choices about what to eat, how to teach, where to build our cities, and how to build our movement to win.
Don’t get me wrong – we certainly don’t need one dominant theory of change according to which we make all our decisions. In the end, the theory is just that – a theory. It’s an idea. A guess. A hypothesis based on observations and extrapolations. What we very much do need are a few good ideas … some competing principles upon which to build our strategies. Many existing theories of social change (evolutionary theory, cyclical theory, technological theory) sought to explain the present in terms of the past. Perhaps we can use elements from these theories, and / or create entirely new ones, to explore the past to formulate strategies for conscious futuring.
Yes, the world is changing, as it always had and always will. And yes, there are some changes we can control and some we can’t. But, to borrow another one of Obama’s rather silly presidential campaign slogans (as well as a title of one of Newt Gingriches many books), if we want to “win the future” and influence the way that life on earth is lived, we’ve got to better understand how decisions are made, how people are compelled, and the drivers of personal and societal change.
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