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Individual: starts with I, ends with all

We've caused a lot of serious problems that we need to solve, and we often hear heated debates about whether the solutions to those problems will spring from “individual changes” or “system changes”. Wait, whaaaaaaa? Aren't all human systems based on and created by individuals? We're confused.

At AHEM, we’re all about the spirit and power of individuals because, hey, we’re ALL individuals, right? Seems pretty obvious when we put it like that, but we often get caught up talking about companies, countries, institutions, and organizations as if they aren’t just a bunch of people. You’ve probably heard people say they hate some company, government, or organization after having an unpleasant experience (or maybe uttered similar words yourself), but it’s rare to hear someone say they are angry with the individual within a company, government, or organization who made a decision that created an unpleasant experience.

It's true we form coalitions - sometimes by choice or out of necessity and sometimes by chance. When people argue that systems need to change and not individuals, however, they are suggesting that we’ve all become victims, victims of systems that are bigger than we are.

Don’t get us wrong, systems thinking is important because we are interdependent, and our problems are too. Humans are all connected to the limitations of Earth’s resources and all share the same basic needs for survival. That means we’re part of many different systems.

When people suggest the systems need to change and not individuals, however, they make it sound like what we each do doesn’t really matter because a system is causing more negative impacts than individuals are.

We're pretty sure that doesn't make any sense.

What's ironic is that when we make this argument against particular "systems", we've bought into the larger social system of ideas that underlies each of the problems we seek to solve: That the institutions and systems we create somehow exist outside of us. Under that model, we'll always be treating symptoms without ever actually solving the problems.

Let’s try a little experiment: point to a system.

Where is it? We want to see it. How about one that's in the news all the time, like our economic system? You could point to a bank, but that’s just a building people constructed. You might point to paper money, but without humans, it has no value - it’s just an IOU people developed to make it easier for those who don't know each other to get what they need and want. You could pull out the newspaper and talk with us about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or stocks, but those are just tallies and measures people developed to count and rank things we make and do. You could give us a tour around a company, but you’d probably be showing us a physical space - meeting rooms, offices, cubicles, etc. The entire "system" is built around, and for, people to interact and accomplish tasks. Hmmm... Spoiler alert: we can't change the economic system without changing the individuals within it.

Let's try another system that we collaboratists are fond of discussing: our industrial agricultural system. Where is our industrial agricultural system? You might direct us to one of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) so we can see the large, polluting feedlots and tour the factory to witness the mechanized nature of farming, but again, those are just spaces and devices people constructed. Thinking about it more broadly...If there were no people, would the CAFOs exist? Not so much, right?

Now think even bigger: point to your country.

Did you just think about pulling out a map? To be fair, it is likely that all of your teachers did exactly that. But hold on; if people weren’t here on Earth, would there be countries at all? Obviously, Harold did not take a big purple crayon and actually draw lines all over our continents that distinguish one country from another. Even if he did, without people to interpret what those lines mean, they don’t mean anything. What your teacher was trying to help you understand (but might not have really understood him/herself) was that those lines are just representations of human control. Each represents an area of land that almost everybody else agrees a specific social group can manipulate in almost any way they like. We tend to call that kind of ownership national (or state) sovereignty, but once again, it is a definition people created.

Simply put, we can’t talk about our countries without talking about people. Countries are a system developed to legitimize resource development and extraction by particular social groups. And what are social groups are comprised of? You guessed it - individuals.

Our countries, companies, and organizations are ideas...ideas individuals developed about how to think, talk about, or do things in the world around us. In all of these examples, you’d probably eventually get around to introducing us to people, people who have certain responsibilities to accomplish particular tasks and facilitate certain interactions. People like the president of a bank, the manager of a certain part of a company, a farmer, or a citizen or representative of a country.

Our systems are not tangible things; they're ideas that vanish without people.

Without people to buy into our systems, the systems don't exist. That means the problems we face with our systems are really just problems with ourselves. WE are the people who conceive of and form our companies, governments, institutions, and organizations. WE are the ones making the decisions about our world, enacting policies, and shaping our future.

Focusing on individuals isn’t about blaming one another for our mistakes, but it’s important we recognize our missteps so we can avoid them in the future. It’s true that we don't all have the same level of influence; we each face different limitations, obstacles, and privileges based on where we happened to be born. We each have the opportunity, however, to make changes - and we’re not just talking about turning off the faucet when we brush our teeth (although we should do that!). We can make changes in how we think, behave, and shape our future both privately at home and also together in our global community through the people we engage, the information we share, and the work we do.

Ray Anderson is a good illustration of this concept in practice. Before he passed away in 2011, he was chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest carpet-tile manufacturers, Interface Carpets. In the early 1990’s his customers started asking what the company was doing for the environment, and the truth was the people at the company had never really thought about it. Several members of the company decided to form a task force to come up with an answer to this question, and they asked Anderson to give a kick off speech and set the vision for the group. The problem was, he didn’t have much of an idea either. Around this time, he came across a book, The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Reading about the impacts the "take / make / waste" industrial system, a system his own company was part of, had on his surroundings was such an impactful experience for Anderson personally that it awakened in him a desire to make changes professionally as well. In 1994, he gave his task force a mission: to not only reach sustainability in their own company’s practices but also help others reach sustainability by adopting and sharing best practices, developing and investing in sustainable technologies, and challenging their suppliers to do the same.

Anderson recognized that, although the system we use to do business is part of the problem, business can also be part of the solution. As the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on Earth, the corporate system is responsible for most of the damage to our surroundings. That’s often why people argue against focusing on changing individual lifestyles and for focusing on regulating corporations. Those people are missing what Anderson recognized: that his business was just a group of individuals who could collaborate to make different choices. Likewise, the regulators making the rules for the corporations are individuals, too!

His story is proof that changes start with individuals and catch on when people listen to one another, share ideas, get inspired, and then take action. His story also demonstrates that individual change can be much more than going home and changing a lightbulb, drinking from a reusable coffee mug, driving less, donating money, or voting for a particular policy. All of those changes can be powerful, and changing our own behaviors are a great place to start. Transformation, however, requires collective action. And what is collective action? It’s when a bunch of individuals work together to do something.

That’s the kind of individual change we’re passionate about at AHEM.

Individual changes that make us rethink the choices we’re making, prompt us to take action in our own lives, and lead us to collective action are what we need to solve the serious problems we face.

With that said, anyone who tells you that you’ve done your part when you’ve purchased an energy efficient appliance, turned down your thermostat, or made a donation, for example, aren’t telling you the full story. Think about it, the ethos of sustainability is NOT about furthering existing routines of consumption. Simple changes that fit into existing patterns and systems, while certainly a start, will never be a solution.

Changing our culture is CRAZY hard so it makes sense for us to each start with ourselves where we are today - geographically, financially, and emotionally. Change isn’t easy, but we can each challenge ourselves and one another every day to change our thinking and behaviors. It’s important for us to remember, however, that our lifestyle includes all of our choices - at home, at work, at play, and in between. Not sure where to begin? Well, a great place to start is by signing AHEM's Declaration of Interdependence so we can all get on the same page with our thinking and start aligning our actions towards the same vision.

Together, we can do better.

this post was co-authored by Laura Stanik and Chris Blockus, AHEM Founders | July 22, 2013

 
   
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Individual starts with I ends with all

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w00t! Signing AHEM's Declaration of Interdependence is a great way to begin so we can all get on the same page with our thinking and then start aligning our actions towards a shared vision. In addition to the original version of the Declaration, you can also read the complete modernized version, if you're not the 1776 type.

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