Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)


Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)


2 responses to “Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

  1. Oh, Rhiannon, distracting me from my aimless internet shuffling and making me think. Oh well. For what it’s worth, here is my utterly imperfect take on things. It’s just the one draft and apologies if I express myself with all the elegance I would display if i appeared at Saddlers Wells.

    I’m a liberal. Therefore, for me, some questions which others see as collectively political I see as in the domain of expression of individual conscience and idea of the good life. To take two examples. Let’s say I think same sex marriage is a sin (I don’t but bear with me). I have two ways of making this political. First, I could campaign to have same sex marriage made illegal. If my objections to homosexuality were wider than that I could work to have the laws pertaining to homosexuality made more restrictive. Section 28 anyone?

    Let’s assume that as I think in this example that same sex marriage and, by extension, gay sex is sinful that I do not engage in sex with another of my gender nor to I marry another man. That is an individualising of my view of same sex marriage as sinful. My collective expression of this is to work with others to make it illegal.

    But, I am a liberal. As an individual I can avoid sex with another man and I can decline to marry another man. I recognise, however, as a liberal that others’ notion of the good life may involve a good deal of rumpy-pumpy with persons of the same sex as them and may even include wanting to marry someone of the same sex. As a liberal my collective response must be to say ‘As you are harming no one else, it is not for me to prevent you from expressing your love for another in these ways. I think they are sinful but accept that you, as another rational person, do not.’

    Similar arguments apply in the case of abortion. As I am biologically prevented from ever needing to decide on abortion for my self, let us consider the case of a woman who thinks abortion is wrong. Again, as an individual, she can always refuse an abortion for herself. She has the same two collective choices. Work to make abortion illegal or, the liberal way, accept that she cannot know the minds or lives of others completely and accept that they may make a different choice to her.

    Things become more complicated with issues like climate change. As an individual I can, at the extreme, adorn a Buddhist monk’s robes and live in a cave for the rest of my life and have a carbon footprint only just large enough to maintain my existence. But, even if I do that, climate change will still occur because my individual contribution to solving the problem is negligible.

    I should probably say at this point that I am a complete hypocrite. I accept the scientific evidence that climate change is happening and that human actions are its primary driver. I try to minimise my food waste but not to the extent of eating an unpleasant meal. I am vegetarian most days and not vegetarian on others. Oh, and I had children. Surely the biggest, most selfish act of carbon wasting going. Did I not know that the world has too many people in it? Well, yeah, I did but i had kids anyway. Also I fly twice each year on holiday. ouch. But I don’t drive and I take my own bags to the supermarket. Yey, green me!

    Because my individual response to climate change is trivial both in that my actions alone cannot prevent climate change, and my record is, at best, mixed, we are left with politics. Politics is about two things. At a basic level it is about who gets what. More generally, at least in democratic societies, it is the process by which we agree common rules.

    In my research on food security it became apparent that a consequence of economic development in the Global South was going to be an increase in demand for dairy and meat in large countries such as India and China. That has been the pattern in the West too. Look at meat consumption in the post war era. Huge.

    One response to this could be for the West to do what it can to keep the developing world poor. That will keep their carbon footprints low and perhaps allow us to carry on much as we do. That is hardly just, however. Or, we can say that if we welcome the world’s poorest not being so poor the reality is that we will need to make changes. Our individual choices may only be virtue signalling but they might show that alternatives are possible. Look, he only eats meat once every two weeks and he can still walk! Wow, perhaps this is possible? Such individual examples and promoted through collective campaigns, might bring about societal change.

    Change can happen quite quickly. When I was a kid ‘coon’ as a term for black people could be heard on mainstream TV. Not now. Outside of professional men’s football the casual use of ‘queer’ and ‘poof’ in everyday life was far more common than today. And if you had told me even as late as 2000 that same sex marriage would be legal by 2016 I would not have believed you.

    Let’s not pretend that things are perfect and racism and prejudice against homosexuals have been rooted out. Clearly they have not. But things are better. Perhaps we also need to stop pretending that we are building Utopia. Opposing a proposal on climate change, for example, because it does not go far enough may make us feel good but doesn’t help. A small step is a small step but it is still a step.

    On climate change, social justice etc i say work with others even if they are not as ‘enlightened’ as we might be. True, we might not have time to save ourselves from the worst effects of climate change but that should not stop us trying. At a local level work with councils to promote a greener agenda, demand ‘meat free Mondays’ in our schools. At a national level support making flying more expensive, support better regulation. At an international level work in the EU to make the EU’s position green and so it can influence and change that of others. We may not succeed. If there are better options, I would love to hear them.

  2. Thank you for starting this conversation. I look forward to your future posts and hope to take part in the conversations.

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