Social change requires movements. We each bring our uniqueness to the table, but we are stronger together.

Group work

Individual action

When you think about creating social change, what strategy comes to mind first? For a lot of people, responsibility for change lies with the individual. A society is made up of individuals, after all, so it is up to each of us to create a better world by starting with ourselves. According to this worldview, others will learn by example and be inspired by our behaviour choices. Is this the most effective way of improving society?

Individual actions can be broadly divided into ethical consumerism and lifestyle action. Ethical consumerism – like choosing Fair Trade groceries and individual boycotts of certain brands or industries – is a form of “voting with your dollar;” putting financial pressure on companies to make more moral choices for their production of goods. Lifestyle action – like choosing to bicycle more and drive less, or having a recycle bin – is a way of doing your part and taking responsibility for your own life. It is a way of living the idea that every person can make a difference, in a very literal way.

These tactics bring with them an almost spiritual element: they can help people feel more in tune with their values and the world, and therefore decrease cognitive dissonance. Some people experience improvements in emotional and psychological health when they “de-clutter” their lives and live more simply. This can be a powerful tool for preventing activist burn-out, depending on what actions a person takes. However, taken as a complete worldview, individual action can be unnecessarily reductionist – it oversimplifies complex interactions.

Empowering or disempowering?

There are inspiring and depressing aspects to both individual and organised action. While some find that the idea of taking personal responsibility makes activism simpler for them, others find that it can stop them from getting more involved.

“I stood in the supermarket and saw plastic packaging everywhere. And I thought, ‘this is only one supermarket, in one city, in one country in the world.’ It overwhelmed me. I felt like I just couldn’t buy anything at all. I was paralysed,” one 350 Aotearoa volunteer told me in a conversation. This is unfortunately a common response to the pressure of individual responsibility, and thus, instead of preventing activist burn-out, can create it before somebody has even become active!

What does it mean when somebody is trying to change the world, yet feels individually responsible for systemic problems? When pressure for individual action comes from others, it can lead to a feeling of shame, an emotion that encourages conformity and discourages initiative. Add to this the problem of accessibility – some people have far more access to more “ethical” brands than others; some simply don’t have the time, money, or energy needed to change their lifestyles – and it becomes clear that individual action is not something that we can reasonably expect from other people.  There are clearly barriers to such action, which can only be removed by changing society as a whole. This requires a systemic approach to change. If we don’t want to be overwhelmed by the supermarket, we must address the reasons producers feel free to use copious amounts of plastic, instead of blaming individual consumers for its production.

Organised action

What about organised action? One of the most disempowering aspects of collective action is that it requires patience. This is actually a flaw of both individual and organised action, but it is more of a blow when an organised movement fails to attain its goal immediately. The best way to prevent activist burnout in a movement is to make sure people understand how movements work and have worked in the past. Change rarely comes from one protest or one blockade, but rather from a series of events that slowly weaken the status quo.

I was recently asked by a young man, “Do protests even work?” I explained to him that history shows that a diverse set of tactics works when used consistently; but do protests work by themselves? Probably not. That’s where the creativity, talents, and strengths of the individual come in. These strengths are used to empower a group of people to work together, to show that an organised group is more than the sum of its parts. Individuals come up with ideas, then communicate them to others and combine them with other ideas, which the group then implements together, each playing their vital role. When an individual takes individual action, they are not always playing to their specific strengths or offering their uniqueness to a movement.

But what about Rosa Parks?

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s in the USA was so powerful and effective that everybody wants to claim it as their own. Pacifists insist that its effectiveness lies in its most famous nonviolent tactics; some conservatives claim Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican, while some liberals insist that he preached colour-blindness and ignore the economic justice aspects of the movement. And then there’s Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks was old and tired. She just wanted to rest her feet, and it was the last straw when the bus driver asked to give up her seat for a white passenger. Parks’ example proved the power of the individual; that you can make a difference by acting alone without any help! This is the popular version of the story, but the real story takes us in a very different direction.

Parks was actually only 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat, and she was the Secretary for the Montgomery NAACP at the time. This was no coincidence, as her action was a planned part of a larger campaign. In fact, the NAACP got the idea from a teenage girl who had also learned about civil disobedience from the NAACP and refused to give up her seat nine months prior. Unfortunately, the earlier incident had failed to get as much media attention, partially due to concerns about the girl being pregnant and so young. Parks was then asked to try the action, which was publicised more effectively and led to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott sparked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the following years, the Civil Rights Movement used carefully planned, diverse tactics. There were sit-ins, marches, law suits, conferences, community programmes, and direct action protests. This diversity was what kept the established power on its toes, and the power of people working together is what brought change.

Climate justice and organised action

As I have stated before, the climate justice movement is focused on people power rather than individual action. This is partially because climate justice is an intersectional approach to activism, addressing issues of social justice as well as climate concerns, and as mentioned above, there are privilege and discrimination issues that inevitably come with shaming people for their lifestyles. However, the focus on people power is also a strategic decision. When societal issues are seen as individuals’ responsibilities, systemic problems are not questioned and challenged. When the systemic nature of societal issues is acknowledged, people are motivated to strive for system change.