Be The Change You Want To See: From Environmental Depression to Inspired Action in Six Books

I tend to get pretty down after reading many economic, international development and environmental books—factual, fiction or otherwise. If you do not know what I mean, I highly recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael. Set up as a conversation between a teacher and student, where the former happens to be a hyper-intelligent, talking gorilla, the book slowly takes the reader through environmental philosophy on how we have managed to get ourselves into the present day environmental mess.

Upon turning over the last page I felt empty and angry at everyone, especially myself. Being on vacation in El Salvador and staying in an air-conditioned hotel room with an outdoor pool, which already felt excessive, all of a sudden felt like a ridiculous extravagance that was killing the planet. I immediately understood why one reviewer had said:

“From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories—the ones I read before Ishmael and those I read after.”

The simple lack of available information or transparency around the use and effects of chemicals in every product that surrounds our lives—as well as more blatant and grievous releases of chemicals into the environment by army weapons testing and other industries—exposed by Yale Professor John Wargo in his 2011 book Green Intelligence left me feeling paralysed. The massive private efforts to shut the public out and the inadequate policies and regulations in place to hold businesses responsible for polluting the environment and human beings to the point of disease and death was devastating—I just had no idea what I could do.

Then, through serendipity more than plan, I began to slowly see things differently. Living and working in different countries like Bolivia, Thailand, Nicaragua and Guatemala, for example, I saw many hardships, but also many small victories that ordinary people were winning by improving their lives and the lives of others. The sheer passions and determination that Edwin showed—a gentle giant of a man, an artist and a teacher who found a dream job working for an educational NGO in Guatemala—was simply inspiring. He worked long hours and weekends, through harsh weather, illness and personal trauma, not because he has to, but because he wants to. “I just want to help my community,” he always said.

My recent involvement with Worldwatch Institute’sNourishing the Planet project was also enlightening. Recognising that the current global systems are not sustainable and are, in fact, destroying people and the planet, it highlights individuals, initiatives and organizations that are striving to make a difference. The projects are often small, started on someone’s spare time, with little funding but a ton of commitment, enthusiasm and heart. Yet, they are making huge differences in people’s lives and in improving the environment.

I also began reading books and works with the objective of looking not only for problems, but good, practical suggestions on how to solve them. For this issue I reviewed Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social and Ecological Intelligence, written by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennet and Zenobia Barlow of the Center for Ecoliteracy. It tells eight stories that start by outlining problems of injustice, corruption and pollution that pertain to such things as the awfully destructive mountaintop mining; poverty and unfairness in distribution of resources and quality of education in schools; and environmental and social destruction of oil drilling in indigenous people’s traditional home environments. Yet, the bad news only sets the scene and the book is a revelation of practical action that individuals and communities—including children and youths—are making in their fight for a better world.

My recent foray into Fred Magdoff’s and John Bellamy Foster’s 2011 What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism also surprised me as after a long description of how things have gone wrong, the book ends with a long chapter on what activists, academics, policy makers and normal people should and can push for and demand to help change things around.

Ultimately, any change for social or environmental betterment will have to be systemic—a challenge to the very model of industrial neoliberal capitalism. I would recommend reading Chris Williams’s Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis for  a political economy critique and Marxist appraisal of capitalism’s driving role in today’s environmental crises and, importantly, an actual vision of how it could be stopped and reversed through socialism. For a more radical, feminist call to action that puts 10,000 years of human civilization and agriculture on trial for current ecological and social ills, and provides a practical road map for resistance for the more activist-inclined, read the impassioned, but evidence-loaded Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet  by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen.

Nevertheless, challenging established systems takes empowerment through knowledge and awareness and we can all make small changes to inspire ourselves and others. The words of Ghandi, uttered in quoting his own grandfather, help put this in perspective:

Be the change you want to see.

So, to kick off the Development Roast December inspiration month, I invite you to join me and pledge to do everything you can—within the time that you can spare and within the confines of the changes that you can realistically make—to make sure that your life reflects your ideals as much as possible. As for my pledge: I will carry a thermos flask and  a reusable shopping bag to make sure I never need throw-away plastic ones. I will not buy clothes unless I absolutely need them and I know that they are sourced and made responsibly. I promise to be more compassionate to others and pay a heartfelt complement to one person every day. And, locally, I will work to improve my community, join movements that fight for systemic changes and be a greater advocate for sustainability, social justice and the future of humanity. After all, as the zen saying goes:

“Happiness is when what you think, say and do are in harmony.”

Do you know of any books or real-life examples that inspire you to act? Leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD).

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*A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Global South Development Magazine.

For your reference:

Goleman D., Bennet L. and Barlow Z. (2012) Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, USA.

Klein N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Picador: New York, USA.

Magdoff F. and Bellamy Foster J. (2011) What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, Monthly Review Press: New York, USA.

Perkins J. (2005) Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Penguin Group: USA.

Quinn D. (1995) Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, Bantam Books: USA.

Wargo J. (2009) Green intelligence : creating environments that protect human health, Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut, USA.





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  1. I like your pledge Oulia, until such a time as we have cradle to grave responsibility for products by manufacturers, and economic growth that is not linked to increased GHG emissions, how we spend our money and our time is crucial to making change. Personally I found that cutting my income by 80%, 25 years ago, solved decisions about using more than my share of resources and in addition freed up my time to spend on more positive outcomes. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘”Sometimes money can cost too much”

  2. Great article. I also found the website The Story of Stuff and the book ‘Change the world for a fiver’ as moving.

    Keep up the good work and welcome to the revolution.

  3. I think you mean gorilla …?


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