Kai Chan is professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. He is co-founder of CoSphere, a community of small-planet heroes.
Heat domes, forest fires, continent-wide smoke and flooding: these extreme events are exactly what climate scientists have been warning us about for decades. They are symptoms of a society overshooting its capacity – March 13 marks the day that Canadians and Americans will have already used up their share of the planet’s resources for 2022.
Usually, the conclusion is that we each need to do more to reduce our environmental footprints. That narrative is a distraction from what’s really needed: an unprecedented collaboration that revamps laws, politics and economies to change the systems we live in for good.
If you’ve heard about the need for broader and deeper “system change,” chances are it wasn’t from science, but advocacy. “Change the system, not the climate!” goes the protest poster. You might wonder if that’s really needed. Doesn’t climate science suggest that countries just need to be more aggressive with their emissions targets? And that we all need to switch to electric cars, eat plant-based diets, take public transit and fly less?
No: The science is clear on the need for system change, which goes well beyond national targets and individual choices. Especially if we want not just a livable climate, but also sufficient food, clean water, shared resources and vibrant biodiversity. We need to address the problem at its root: the ideas, institutions and practices that make polluting lifestyles the norm, such as consumer culture and infinite economic growth.
The need for system change was demonstrated by a 2019 intergovernmental report called the IPBES Global Assessment, which found that up to a million species are at risk of extinction. In the chapter I led, we reviewed all available studies that modelled and analyzed optimistic scenarios of the future and found several key systemic changes. Scenarios without these changes in global social, political and economic systems failed – too little food, freshwater, energy, resources or nature.
In the words of the Global Assessment, what is required is “transformative change”: “A fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.” By negotiating those words and the surrounding text, 132 countries agreed that transformative change was necessary for a sustainable future. So, it’s troubling that these countries have done precious little to that end.
You may have absorbed the message that, if you care about the planet, the onus is on you to be sustainable. Somehow, it seems up to us as individuals to become carbon neutral, plastic-free and zero-impact. Every bit helps, but we can’t win that way. According to ecological footprint calculators, even perfect eco-angels would consume two planets’ production of resources if living in North America.
This myth of individual ecological perfection also has perverse effects. We’ve been expecting individuals to somehow live sustainably within deeply unsustainable systems. It’s too hard, too time-consuming, too disempowering. Some who care most become occupied with the endless task of avoiding all plastic, creating no waste, buying conscientiously, reusing continuously and recycling everything. Made busy with these little impossibilities, there’s no time for anything else. The rest throw up their hands, thinking, “That’s too much!”
System change provides a different answer: It doesn’t stem from purely private action. Transformation happens when enough of us take aim at particular changes, and at the social norms that reinforce those systems.
This means pushing politicians to change specific laws and policies, such as environmental human rights and fossil fuel subsidies, through petitions and protests. We do need to model lifestyles consistent with values we state, but the key here isn’t perfection. Rather, it’s to have a solid foundation to spark social change by signalling our position on others’ actions in relation to substantial issues.
Rather than act individually, we must be bold, strategic and co-ordinated. The eco/climate movement hasn’t yet seen this combination, although most pieces are there. The climate protests haven’t yet converged on shared demands. Countless NGOs are doing great work, but from the outside the sum seems chaotic. At global scales, systems are so complex and intertwined that well-meaning efforts can backfire without co-ordination through constant engagement with science.
Science needs to play a central role – not just documenting the decline, but steering the solution. Viewed through this lens, including social science, many disparate parts could transform into one compelling whole. Key threads like overconsumption can be identified as central to the fabric, so they can receive the attention they deserve from us all. Thus, small-scale efforts can swell to upend longstanding but problematic notions, like our unhealthy collective obsession with luxury, thereby shifting our future path on this planet.
With social norms, the tables of power turn toward the next generation. As one of several changes we might need, can you imagine a world where lives of luxury and leisure are not sought and celebrated, but spurned? I’m guessing that youth activists can – and they can make it happen. They see society’s trajectory for what it is, and it’s not a future they want or accept. And whereas young people may have little power now by votes or dollars, they have immense influence over what’s acceptable or cool.
But turning intention into system change requires a centre for connection, where those who are concerned can find hope and community while co-ordinating for meaningful action. A place to turn for help and resources about what to aim for and how to achieve it. And a coalition committed to a shared vision of a better future.
Regardless of where we organize, we need to act differently, not to strive for individual perfection. What we really need is the heroics to change systems that drive the ecological and inequity crises so we can all protect the planet – together.
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