There are many actions that people can take for sustainability. In both research and practice, these tend to be lumped together as pro-environmental actions. But different actions work differently to spur change. If we hope to catalyze change effectively—as is CoSphere’s mission—we need to distinguish three types of actions and their associated spheres of influence.
(A) Private Actions
Most of us would agree that in order to be an environmentalist or to promote sustainability, we need to do our part by composting, recycling, conserving water, switching to LED lightbulbs, and buying local and eco-friendly products (if we can). Such individual efforts—we call them ‘private actions’—are one way to do something positive for the environment. Indeed, the majority of environmental campaigns and programs call for private actions, which leads many people to think that these are the main things they can or should do. But there are three kinds of problems with this idea.
#1 It’s Too Little
Private actions are important, but they’re too little to avert the climate and ecological crises. We can all compost and recycle, but while that’s necessary, it won’t solve the pickle we’re in. And it’s certainly helpful to conserve water and electricity, but even if everyone took their personal conservation measures to extremes, it wouldn’t address the lion’s share of the problems that stem from industry and the infrastructure that shapes our actions and habits.
#2 It’s Too Much
Buying organic produce, fair-trade clothing, and electric cars seems like our civic duty for sustainability—at least, if we listen to advertisers or mainstream media. But not everyone has the money for that. Kai used to talk about a sustainability solution that involved paying to mitigate the impacts of our consumption. At every single presentation—no matter who the audience was—at least one person would say something like, How does this apply to those of us who want to be part of the solution but don’t have the money to pay extra?
It was a crucial point: everyone can be part of the solution. But solutions that involve paying extra seem to suggest that the rich are the heroes (and the poor free-loaders). It doesn’t have to be that way.
Moreover, private actions are often difficult and inordinately time consuming. There are literally thousands of ecolabels out there, and some of them are largely corporate greenwashing. In the face of the complexity of figuring out what one should buy given myriad considerations, many people throw their hands up.
#3 It Misses the Point
Protecting the environment and fostering sustainability requires transformative change—system change that fundamentally shifts current economic, social, institutional, technological, and behavioral trajectories for years to come. And private actions can almost never yield that by themselves. Often, private actions actually justify and perpetuate the system, potentially assuaging our environmental guilt and distracting us from the real change that’s needed.
Two Other Kinds of Actions
We have limited capacity to take private actions. Our private actions are mostly directed or constrained by physical infrastructure, rules, and social norms. Even if we’re not aware of it, we usually do what’s easy, what’s legal, or what’s expected.
Some of us might also think that because we’re just one of almost 8 billion human beings on the planet, our private actions don’t matter that much, if others aren’t following suit. But a private action isn’t just a drop in the bucket if it creates ripples. And it can, if we recreate social norms via social-signalling, particularly if we signal broader values. Or if we change rules or physical infrastructure via system-changing actions.
(B) Social-Signalling Actions
Just thirty years ago, it was common to smoke in indoor venues, workplaces, and even airplanes. At one point around the turn of the millennium, smoking indoors went from being okay to being not okay in many parts of the world. This transition largely coincided with a swell of people speaking up and voicing their disapproval of smoking indoors. These same dynamics apply equally to sustainability contexts.
Laws are one thing. Compliance is another. If people feel that breaking a law is socially acceptable, or even socially required (e.g., civil disobedience in response to unjust laws), some will do that. Fair laws can yield desired private actions and also empower people to speak up in defence of the law. But social norms themselves have force, and they can be initiated before or without legal change.
Thus one of the most powerful instruments in your toolbox is to signal clearly what practices you support and which you don’t through ‘social-signaling’ actions. These would include ‘liking’ and sharing on social media, participating in public events like Earth Day, pledging support for or boycotting businesses or industry practices, and wearing stickers and clothes that send strong messages. Social-signaling actions typically align with our values and social identities and can shift meanings in a society.
(C) System-Changing Actions
The other way that systems can be triggered to evolve is through legal reform and physical infrastructure. Both laws and infrastructure are subject to change via small-planet heroics—action taken by someone striving for a better world for all.
System-changing actions are political or activist in nature. This means voting, of course, but also more institutional interventions (political organizing), and more dramatic ones (protests, strikes, petitions, letters to firms and elected officials, and civil disobedience). If successful, this type of action can bring about large-scale change by altering the very systems that underpin how our societies operate.
If we want a fair, vibrant and sustainable world, we need to exert three linked spheres of influence (as depicted simply on CoSphere’s logo). Cultivating a better future means not only making sustainable choices in private, but also signalling our values while pushing for collective action and structural change to transform the systems that drive social injustice and the climate and ecological crises.
Written by Kai Chan of the CoSphere team.