I’ve been thinking a lot recently about individual versus collective actions. When I worked in energy efficiency we often focused on individual actions as being a starting point towards sustainability. Part of the hope was that if an individual engaged in individual actions like installing a high energy furnace or not idling while they waited to pick up their kids after school that they would also support things like legislation.
I completed a short course in culturally responsive teaching. Collective versus individual approaches to learning was one of our topics. We tend to prioritize individual learning and individual learning activities in Western style education. This can disadvantage individuals who have grown up in more collectivist cultures even when they were exposed to individualistic approaches through all of school. In learning this means that we need to include more collective learning activities (note that doesn’t mean a group project where everyone does their own thing and they kind of put it into a cohesive whole at the end).
I’m just musing here but I can see connections between this and the individual approach to sustainability. If the individual is prioritized then can we ignore or discount the need for collective action? I think we do this with learning. Nobody likes the group project unless there are actual benefits to being in the group. We’ve deprioritized the need for collective action because we focus too much on the individual. As a result, working together becomes a last resort.
I see a transition in the students in my sustainability course though. By the end of the semester many of them comment that discussing issues with others and working on the group project actually changed their perspective. I think, although I have no experimental evidence, that this occurs at least in part because I really emphasize how important multiple perspectives are to understanding sustainability challenges. I demo this and facilitate it in various ways throughout the course.
What if we did the same thing with sustainability actions in the world? What if, instead of focusing on how much energy you save compared to your neighbors by switching to a high efficiency furnace there was an energy budget for the community and everyone had to work together to get within the budget? Would we have more cooperation? Would the community help support people who couldn’t afford the up front costs of being more sustainable? Would we realize that although we are all on the same ocean we aren’t all in the same kinds of boats?
I am an individual, but it is collective action that leads to success in sustainability and in learning. Perhaps we should start to acknowledge that and stop hoping that we can all do it on our own.