not good enough
It is our actions, not our words, that indicate what we believe. The gap between what we say we believe and what we actually do is the measure of our integrity.
I am really lucky to have among my friends and colleagues people I admire deeply, people who aspire to make a positive difference in the world. This is my professional tribe. We talk about how to make the world better all the time. I am involved with some incredible projects and organisations who do amazingly good stuff; initiatives that you might say are part of the solution rather than the problem.
Recently I’ve been doing some soul searching. It has been triggered by reading a couple of provocative books, but as Maria said today, the things we have been pondering of late have been a long time coming. We have been aware of some disturbing facts about economic injustice and the effects of our lifestyle on our environment for a long time … but it is hard, very hard, to make choices that compromise the lifestyle we desire. A while ago I read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. She is right, this changes everything but it demands sooo much. We all want a healthy planet, as long as we don’t have to change how we live. In the end I looked away.
One of the reasons it is easy to justify maintaining our lifestyle is the fact that we can’t see how our little piddly actions make a difference in the scheme of things. Does buying a shirt from a brand that is committed to an ethical supply chain actually make a difference in the lives of the working poor in Asia? Why bother composting food waste? Why bother riding a bike to the supermarket instead of driving? Why bother writing to our local member about an issue of social exclusion in our town?
It all takes so much effort and we’re so busy … trying to change the world.
In Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world, Anand Giridharadas argues that people like me, the elite, are committed to changing the world only in ways that enable us to maintain our status as elites. In other words, we see the problems to be solved as ‘out there’. I have learned so much from Adam Kahane, who suggests in his most recent book that in order to be a part of the solution, we need to be part of the problem. In my current musings, this means that in order to design a positive response to a social challenge, I need to appreciate my part in the problem.
What problems are we talking about? For me there are two main ones that annex a bunch of others:
- The problem of economic exclusion. The fact that our society systematically excludes people. The gob smacking inability of the elite to appreciate that we are privileged not because of our hard work, but because of the opportunities we got as birthright.
- That the drivers in our economy and society reward plundering the environment and compromising our health to maintain an urban lifestyle of convenience, status and efficiency.
Maria and I have decided that before we even presume to talk about changing the world, the first step is actually one of integrity. It doesn’t matter if the things we do don’t change anything, it is about closing the gap between what we say matters and how we behave. Integrity.
It has been a depressing couple of days in some ways. One of the things we have done is explore clothing options by browsing Good On You an initiative started by someone I know. Fashion brands are assessed on their performance in three practice areas: labour, environment and animal welfare. Each brand ends up with an overall rating from 1 (we avoid) to 5 (great), with ‘not good enough’, ‘it’s a start’ and ‘good’ in between. Now I’m a boring bloke and pretty much everything in my wardrobe comes from a small handful of brands. You guessed it – each one rated ‘we avoid’ or ‘not good enough’. Sigh.
Everyday we touch the economy in thousands of ways. I started this blog on a plane flight and now I’m sitting in a city hotel room. I look around. I wonder about where each item came from: the chair I’m sitting on just for starters. Where did the timber come from? How was the upholstery fabric manufactured? What chemicals were used? How much energy in manufacturing and transport? Were the labourers paid a sustaining wage? What about the computer I am using? Did the company who’s logo is on it pay fair taxes? (I know the answer to that one is ‘no’.) I’m drinking tap water out of a single use plastic bottle. Good grief. My feet are on mass produced carpet - now there is an industry with a reputation. And that's just the things I'm touching. Let's not get started about the packaging and waste in the bathroom. Pretty much every company is not doing enough. Some are trying, but we are all part of a big complex system where the incentives work against the health of people and the environment.
Just to participate in our society is to be complicit. What is one to do? When I look at my lifestyle it's clearly ‘not good enough’. I love hitching our caravan (that most likely was made of materials from the pit!) to my high emitting 4WD to head off into nature. Ha di ha ha. At every turn there is hypocrisy. Follow the supply chain on everything in my pockets and its likely to be righteous person’s horror movie.
It’s too hard. Just carry on and keep talking about doing good and making the world better.
And so a long journey gets a fresh kick in the guts. We’re not at square one; we’ve been making some choices about where our food comes from for a while – but there’s much more to be done. Truth is we’ve probably only given lip service to reducing our energy use – time to make some changes there. We’re only just making peace with the fact that we are part of the problem. It’s not about changing the world. It’s about integrity.
Baby steps. So one thing is to try to eliminate single use plastic. So we bring home an armful of glass jars (please don’t ask me where they came from or how they were made!) and commit to buying from wholefood shops. Then Maria painstakingly eliminates single use plastic packaging from our pantry. We stand in front of it and survey the new look. I look at her and say, well “it’s a start”.