Do Better Better #10: Even the smallest person can change the course of the future

Quinn Emmett
November 24, 2020
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Many words and gallons of figurative blood have been spilled in the long war over how most effectively to take on the world’s biggest problems and opportunities.

The lines are often starkly drawn between the factions of “individual actions” and “systemic change”. The gatekeepers of each side can often spend as much energy telling newcomers how they’re doing it wrong as they do fighting the good fight.

But it’s important to understand why these captains of progress are forced to clarify our most prudent way forward, again and again. The forces aligned against them -- and us -- have sought since the 1950’s to confuse you, to misinform you, to create chaos among the ranks of the well-intentioned, to make this your fault.

And the onslaught of greenwashing and environmental original sin continues to this day. This, is a moment when we need all hands on deck. Every gender, every race, every dollar, every effort. And not just because this ticking clock is a measure of the Anthropocene — in itself a war of attrition involving every hand on deck — but because the systems built so far, without incorporating every gender and race, have failed for every demographic save one, white men; those white men being the same demographic that designed the systems and enslaved the men and women that built the clock itself.

To be clear: those same stakeholders have spent enormous sums to convince you that you, your person, your habits and choices, are the problem. And that, in turn, only you and the very personal choices you make — to buy low tar cigarettes, to use fewer plastic straws, wear a mask — can reverse these very unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves in.

Tick, tock. Make better choices.

These stakeholders — profiteers, poisoners of mind and body, Wormtongues but with Twitter accounts and trillions in subsidies — seek to divide us, to extinguish our brightest flames before they can be lit.

They are everywhere, as designed: leading international conglomerates to incredible profits, and failing to lead countries, including and especially this one. They have abandoned taking care of you, but will never stop extorting and misleading you.

So to defeat them does in fact require systemic change. That is the nature of being alive when the clock is almost up. Incrementalism — fewer plastic straws over time — ignores that the damage is nearly done.

Turning back those who come to our efforts asking “How can I help?” is how we lose, and how we fail to enact systemic change. They can take away our air, and our water, but they can never take away the power each of us has to decide how we react to such outright thefts.

***

And how we each choose to react is born of our own perspectives and our own skills. Frodo didn’t take to Mordor because he sought adventure; he was an undersized orphan and only child and the only place he’d ever called home was inevitably going to be destroyed. He was incredibly and publicly reluctant to take up the cause, but he also knew he didn’t have a choice. And he was also never alone, as a fellowship of like-minded allies quickly formed by his side, a steadfast gathering of very different creatures, with very different skills, willing to throw aside traditions and grievances because the time was now or never. If nothing else, Frodo’s was a tale of how much we can inspire each other to take up the fight.

As my hero Rhiana Gunn-Wright wrote this week: “We are still terribly, dangerously alive. And any moment that you’re alive is a moment to fight back against the people, institutions, and ideologies — the systems — that prefer death over justice.”

And as my other hero Dr. Leah Stokes wrote, with regard to the new documentary I Am Greta: you can “make your life into a living act of resistance, make your life into art.”

But you don’t have to do all of this, and you don’t have to do it alone. Your individual actions won’t manifest in a vacuum. Not now, with everything on the line.

You can use your privilege and put your body in the streets with thousands of others; you can put your body in between your ancestral lands and a pipeline; you can run for office, to represent hundreds, or millions; you can become a sustainable materials scientist and create a lab with six other scientists, to build new straws, straws that don’t destroy ecosystems, but that also don’t become tissue in cold brew; you can string simple words together into something none of us has ever read before; you can use your expertise spinning up restaurants to become a new leader in food-based disaster relief for millions; you can pick up trash every day for hundreds of days in a row to lay bare the choices of others who walk the same paths; you can use your art to iconize a movement.

How many young Americans sat on the floor of Nancy Pelosi’s office just over two years ago? A hundred and fifty? There are oil companies with a hundred and fifty senior vice presidents. One hundred and fifty members of Generation Z does not a revolution make.

Or does it? Just over seven hundred days later, and our otherwise centrist President-elect has promised to dismantle fossil fuels forever, because thousands more young people watched those original one hundred and fifty, and together they’ve refused to stop knocking on his door.

***

The choices you make — how you choose to join the fight, on a daily basis — these choices to be you, to use what you’ve got, these actions, repeated over time, become a pattern, become a habit, become a part of who you are.

They become a practice. A new practice — not unlike doing pushups, or going to bed earlier, getting up earlier, or drinking more water, journaling, exercising, calling your mom every day, calling your representatives, skipping school every Friday to protest, volunteering — the initial choice to begin, to invest in developing a part of yourself, to better yourself, your relationships and your world, to commit to it every day, these individual actions add up, transform who you are, open new opportunities, inspire others around you, and can become something so much more.

They can become the face of a new movement, they can dismantle oppressive systems, they can reverse the clock, now, at the turn of the tide.

— Quinn

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