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10:10 and why it isn’t a waste of time

January 18, 2010

There are three issues routinely raised or implied in discussions about 10:10, and they merit some examination.

Self interest is the first. Is there anyone who objects to saving money on household bills? Irrespective of your views on climate change, the best reason I can find for taking personal measures to cut down my use of fossil fuels is the immediate and positive effect it has on my wallet. By keeping track of my spending I have reduced my energy bills by £80 a year on electricity (at no investment cost at all, just changes of habit), about £500 a year on transport (bought a 225cc motorcycle which has paid for itself in four years through reductions in fuel, servicing, tyres, depreciation and as of now I’m in profit on the deal) and £300 a year on heating oil (four years to recover the costs of new double glazing on the ground floor of my house – no heating upstairs BTW). The fact that this is a positive contribution to climate change is a bonus, but the real beneficiary is me.

The second argument concerns the relationship between the individual and the institutional. Consider fractal mathematics, where from a simple ‘seed’ element, replicated over and over, a greater and considerably more complex thing can emerge. This ‘ground upward’ approach is an efficient method of building complex systems, which is why nature employs it so often. Addressing complex issues by taking small actions which are repeated at scale, a sum truly greater than its parts can emerge.

Scale is the third and implicit aspect of this issue. I note often that people want big solutions, enacted by equally big institutions, a convenient sophistry because of course if all change is the task of institutions, we can never be held responsible for the outcome of change, or the failure to effect it. We disenfranchise ourselves if we come to believe that as individuals we cannot effect meaningful change, and this despite the fact that history is replete with examples of individuals starting, building and maintaining movements for change that gain in mass and effectiveness, leading to emancipation, collective bargaining, the end of slavery, civil rights, freedom of expression, the end of wars (I’m thinking of Vietnam here) and many other worthy achievements.

There’s a good line in the West Wing when the President asks a new appointee: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Do you know why?” – to which the appointee responds: “because it’s the only thing that ever has”. It’s an old chestnut, but ‘think global, act local’ is still a worthy aphorism.

The fastest way to render ourselves powerless is by believing this to be true. As consumers we have the power of discriminatory purchase. As an electorate we have the democratic power of our vote. As members of a society we have the power of our collective will and aspirations. We are not helpless, we are not alone, and we can make a difference, but to fail to try, to be apathetic and complacent, passive or cynical, all these things will fuel the self-fulfilling prophesy of how helpless we think we are.

The difference we can make must start at the level of the individual and be both modest and humble, unless we are prepared to be forever governed by paternalistic and well-meaning ‘adults’ where the only change is that they approve, the only mandate is that effected by others on our behalf, and the only responsibility for our lives and the world in which we live is shouldered by someone else. It is convenient, fearful, child-like and irresponsible. Time to grow up and take some measure of control over our lives. It’s what adults are supposed to do.

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