Yesterday, Gernot Wagner, an economist for the Environmental Defense Fund published an Op-Ed in the NY Times entitled, Going Green but Getting Nowhere.
The basic premise of the piece is that in order to address large global issues, such as climate change and ocean ecosystem decline, we need actions that are much, much larger than individual actions such as recycling, using reuseable bags and offsetting our carbon foot print. In fact, he argues that these issues might actually be counter productive because they give individuals a false sense of complacency. Instead, he argues, we need large scale collective action. In other words, serious policy reform at the federal level.
Mr. Wagner is correct that these little actions will not add up to offset the environmental impacts our society is currently creating. But he is wrong about these efforts being counter productive and distracting us from the need for collective action. After over a decade of working with grassroots activists on ocean and coastal issues, I have seen the exact opposite to be true.
Every week, Surfrider Foundation activists (volunteers themselves) recruit individuals who are interested in protecting the environment but don't know where to start. I can tell you from experience that these future activists won't be turned on by "mastering economics", reading voluminous technical reports or watching lethally tedious and endless policy debates on local cable access. Instead, by getting them involved in bite-sized activities such as cleaning a beach on a Saturday morning or handing out bags on "Day without a bag", these interested individuals gain a sense of their power. They get more interested in the issue, they get more involved in complex environmental issues, they do their homework and become experts, they decide to "master economics" and engage in politics at the local, state and national level. They become leaders who eventually begin to influence others and build the platform for collective action.
A student once asked Cesar Chavez how he organized. He said, “First, I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.” “No,” said the student, “how do you organize?” Chavez answered, “First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.” You get the point. Talking about these issues raises awareness, builds community and can inspire others to action."
Individual actions are "the gateway drugs" to getting individuals to support collective actions. This is how movements are built. Sadly, collective action will not be created by logic, economics, or moral imperative, instead it will be built one person at a time. I would argue that was one of the reasons that latest efforts to legislate action on climate change failed - it was too focused on politics and not enough on building a grassroots movement in support of changing our reliance on fossil fuels.
Perhaps Mr. Wagner should spend a little less time mastering economics and more time talking to people about how to build a movement that supports the collective action necessary to passing sorely needed environmental policies at the scale we need.