Every Day We Choose
The following is excerpted from Hope Beneath Our Feet, edited by Martin Keogh, published by North Atlantic Books.
Living fully during a time of historic crisis for our planet is possible, I believe, only if we are able to grasp how our individual choices address its very roots. The planetary social and environmental catastrophe we face can feel overwhelming. But I've learned that even when a task seems huge -- cleaning out the attic or writing a book! -- I do find the energy to tackle it if I can see first steps. If I can see how a small action -- getting together a few boxes or creating a one-page outline -- connects to my ultimate goal, an attic where I can actually find things, or a book that might help me find answers. I feel overwhelmed until I have an idea of how to get started and a picture of how it will add up to something.
The same inner experience holds true as we turn to much bigger challenges. To connect our passions with the world's needs in ways we sense really do "add up," we must probe deeply enough to see the underlying patterns trapping us in this horrific mess. I believe we can then stop repeating the "same-olds" and expecting something better to happen. Grasping causal patterns, we can feel excited -- not loath -- to change.
How can I interrupt a negative cycle that creates suffering or reinforce a positive one that contributes to new, life-serving rules and norms? That's the question. And to answer, it's helpful, to me, to distinguish between "issues" and "entry points."
"Issues" overwhelm. They hit us as distinct problems, piles and piles of them. We hear of child slavery, violence against women, hunger, of HIV/AIDS, deepening inequality, pollution and global heating, depression, failing schools . . . I feel buried, smothered under a mountain of problems. I want to cry uncle.
"Entry points" are very different. Entry points we can detect because we're weaving a theory of causation. So we can pinpoint places to start to shift the killer cycle itself. On the surface they might appear as distinct problems, but they are ways "in": they are sharp points that break into and deflect the downward spiral of powerlessness; they are deliberate actions that strengthen the flow of positive causation, putting in motion an upward spiral of empowerment.
To make these distinctions clearer, let me give you one example: "power shopping." Which head of lettuce you pick up today or where you buy your next T-shirt may not seem like a world-changing decision. But it is.
Spirals of powerlessness are generated not only by laws on the books but by norms that our daily acts create. If we buy pesticide-sprayed food, we're saying to the food industry, yes, yes, give me more of that. If we buy organic instead, we are stimulating its production. (Why do you think McDonald's serves organic milk in Sweden but not here?) True, these marketplace "votes" are grossly lopsided-for the more money one has, the more votes one gets-but our purchases make ripples nonetheless.
I say this not to make us feel guilty but to help us realize our power.
Sixty-three million Americans now say they base their purchasing decisions on how they affect the world, and four out of five say they're likely to switch brands to help support a cause when price and quality are equal. Even ten years ago this was hardly the case.
Worldwide, sales in the Fair Trade movement jumped by over 50 percent in just one year, 2004. It now functions in fifty countries because millions of consumers are seeking out its label, guaranteeing that producers receive a decent return. Just to take one example of its impact: in 2006, Rwandan coffee cooperatives (whose members include widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide) received a Fair Trade price for their coffee that was three times higher than that offered by local merchants.
This sea change in awakening to the power of our purchasing choices comes to us also thanks to some energetic, determined people. One is Lina Musayev. Now twenty-five, Lina was a student at George Washington University when her life changed forever during a 2002 Oxfam America leadership training intensive.
"Farmers from Guatemala came to talk to us," Lina told me. "We got the real story of Fair Trade from the roots. I didn't know anything about the coffee crisis. I didn't know it affected twenty-five million people. So when I heard about Fair Trade, I thought, ‘This is incredible. It's working. It's making a difference.' The next day, literally, my friend Stephanie [Faith Green], who'd come with me from Georgetown University, and I founded United Students for Fair Trade. She and I are really close. We made a great team. Once school started, I decided to start from the bottom with a petition saying students wanted more Fair Trade coffee, and we got two thousand students to sign. That's out of ten thousand. It worked. We sent a letter to Starbucks. We pushed for Fair Trade coffee at every university event, like teachers' meetings."
I asked Lina what approach she'd found most effective in reaching students.
"The main thing is getting farmers themselves to come to the campus. Hearing the farmers, I see the students say, ‘Oh, my gosh-I didn't know this.' Almost like I was!"
After three years, George Washington passed a resolution that called on all on-campus vending outlets to serve 100 percent Fair Trade coffee. In only five years, the student Fair Trade movement Lina and her friend Stephanie launched has spread to three hundred campuses, and roughly fifty campuses now serve only Fair Trade coffee.
Lina and Stephanie would probably find it hard ever again to view economics as simply about things exchanged in anonymous transactions. They are helping shape a new norm, an economy that's about people, people relating with each other -- fairly.
Joyful living, I'm convinced, happens when we hit that spot where a potent entry point that touches root causes fires our own deep passions. I know that when I first discovered that spot-my mid-twenties' "aha" that our daily eating habits make huge ecological and fairness ripples- it set off a personal revolution, and I've been forever grateful.
To find that spot, a critical first step may be to recognize that the negative spiral can start deep inside us. If a feeling of "lack" lurks at the center of our pain, pain that we then project out and create in the world, we can start within ourselves to reverse it: we can acknowledge sufficiency. Right now, we can focus on the strengths of ourselves and our loved ones and the possibilities in front of our noses to enhance our capacities and meet our needs for fairness, cooperation, efficacy, and meaning.
Awareness of these capacities can propel the spiral of empowerment busting us out of any downward spin.
So think of something you are doing right now. Maybe you are engaged in your children's schools to make them more empowering for students, or you're sending off an email to the newspaper shaping your community's views. Maybe you've chosen to lighten your weight on the planet by eating less meat, converting your home to solar energy, or joining in "community-supported agriculture" by buying a share in a nearby farm's produce. Maybe you are finally speaking about discrimination you see in your workplace or going door-to-door on behalf of a candidate who is actually listening to citizens' concerns.
Think of what you are doing, and then think about what you have always wanted to do. And ask yourself: am I expanding and spreading power? Am I easing fear of change and fear of the other? Am I learning and teaching the arts of democracy? Am I creating a sustainable movement? Am I replacing the limiting frame with an empowering one? Ask yourself these questions, and believe that change is possible.
I admit it: in the 1970s I never could have imagined the world as I experience it today. I assumed things would get better (if people listened to me, of course!); or they would get worse. But, it hasn't turned out that way. Things are moving fast in two directions at once: they are getting very much worse and they are getting very much better. The real challenge is staying sane in this both/and world: it is holding both realities.
It is not possible to know what's possible. This is how I now understand humility. Believing we can accurately predict outcomes, as cynics claim to, has become for me the utmost in hubris. And because this is true, we are free. We are free to act assuming that our action -- no matter how "small" it appears to us -- could be the tipping point setting off tectonic shifts of consciousness and creativity.
We cannot predict outcomes, but some things are coming clear, and that clarity is beginning to rattle us: the shock of melting ice caps and dying penguins, of leveled rainforests and species wiped out daily before we've even met them, of children armed in genocidal war, and children dying of hunger while more than a third of the world's grain goes to livestock . . . all of this is sinking in, and more and more of us know the time is now -- that we act powerfully now or we see our fate sealed. We risk becoming our species' most shameful ancestors, passing on to those we love and those they will love a diminished world that we ourselves find heartbreaking.
Such shock may then open us to the surge of energy lying dormant -- that pure, protective rage we can transform into exuberant defense of our beautiful earth under siege.
Yes, there is much we do not and perhaps cannot know about our chances of success. But there is much we can know:
Humanity is coming to understand nature's fundamental laws and the fatal consequences of ignoring them. Rather than triggering panic, though, coming to accept nature's boundaries may bring huge relief. If children need boundaries to feel safe, maybe we'll find we all do. Nature offers us real, non-arbitrary guidelines, and as we align ourselves with her -- because we ourselves are part of nature -- we may also move into greater alignment with one another. Could this shift, truly trusting nature's laws, ultimately release the grip of self-created scarcity, allowing us to experience real abundance for the first time?
This takes courage, and courage is contagious. Many are also coming to know that just as we need not fight the natural world, we need not fight our own nature. We can trust our deep, in-born needs to "connect and affect." We can trust our ability to walk with fear. We can even trust our capacity to let go of long-held ways of seeing in order to structure our societies to bring out the best in us while protecting us from the worst.
Ultimately, if we accept ecology's insights that we exist in densely woven networks, then we must also accept that every choice we make sends out ripples, even if we're not consciously choosing. The choice we have is not whether, but only how, we change the world.
© 2010 by Martin Keogh. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Teaser image by PaulS, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet