She knew it would fit. And she knew me as well as anyone did. In big letters on the back, the T-shirt read ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. A crusading environmentalist biking alone past hundreds of motor vehicles stuck in traffic, a moving billboard: ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. With politeness and gratitude for the thought, I declined the gift.
I passed on the prospect of being hollered and honked at, or worse. Just adds to the peril. Deeper, though, the shirt and message presents a distorted picture of both the problem and the solution in the too-many-cars department. The underlying assumption is that individual behaviors are the problem, and that individual behavioral change is the solution. This assumption is okay, on one level, but of very limited use. Clearly and more specifically, the message implies that the environmental crisis is reducible to:
(a) the ignorance and/or insensitivity of car drivers (the problem); and
(b) “why don’t you park your SUV and get on a bike like me, nooneyhead?” (the solution).
I bike for many reasons. It supports good health, I’m out in the open, freer to experience the environment (sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful) and wave to friends, who can see me. Parking is convenient. Biking is very energy efficient and very clean. It is also less expensive—or quicker—than car driving, depending on the unit of measurement: time or money. This rationale needs elaboration. I average around 12 miles per hour in the city. On average, a typical, single car owner travels somewhere between 4 and 9 mph on average when all the purchase and maintenance expenses associated with the car are converted to the owner’s time working a job to get the money. Then actually driving the car takes more time (and money and then more time). Pretty slow, all totaled.
And then there’s huge pollution and resource depletion costs, collectively incurred. Car driving isolates people. Roads divide communities, plaster the Earth, allow toxic water to run right into rivers. Over 30,000 Americans die each year from car accidents. Even wars and military preparedness expenses should be factored in (to protect precious oil). Very hazardous. If all car owners had to absorb all the collective costs as well as their personal car expenses, they’d find themselves driving in reverse most of the time. Though a good bicycle is expensive, the cost in money, converted to hours, to support my bike habit doesn’t even slow me down to 11 mph.
Despite all the good reasons to bike rather than drive, it’s wholly inadequate and dangerously beside the point to blame or lecture the drivers (especially since many cyclists like me drive plenty as well!). Our culture relentlessly conditions us to notice and prioritize individuals and institutions and to assume that the isolated behavior of these agents can explain our problems in full. Systems thinking, in contrast, looks between and around individuals, institutions and events for patterns of systemic behavior. Seeing and understanding systems and the power they have to shape and drive what we do can make individual behavior much more understandable and predictable. And also forgivable, if and when forgiveness is necessary or appropriate.
Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive. Our economic system, structures and patterns require car driving in all but a few places. The shortage of reliable mass transit is part of this pressure, but the incentives to drive run much deeper: government subsidies to oil, infrastructure, and car companies; where we (have to) work; the work we do; the location of houses (especially suburbs) and the location of stores, especially food stores. The forces of globalization, though permitting many to work from home, also lure many to move unbikable distances. In the U.S. in particular, self-contained communities, walkable and bikable, are relics of a slower past.
By all powers, go ahead and bike. It’s better, on balance. The personal and collective benefits of one more cyclist on the road accrue with each convert. Good. But campaigning to get individuals to buck the systemic flow is an insufficient solution to our environmental or social crises. Changing the flow is a more promising alternative. We start with the reality that the vast, vast, vast majority of us more or less do what the other people around us are doing. Nearly every one of us are good at adding our bodies neatly to the end of a line of other lined-up people, even when it just seems to be heading in the direction we want. We herd well, go with the flow. Humans are often chided for our sheepishness. “If only we can break people out of the driving habit (and bike seventeen miles down a highway to work everyday), we’re so lazy!” OK, on one level, we are lazy and, it appears, becoming lazier. But there’s no changing people in this regard in any direct or immediate fashion. Maybe one or two, usually for short time periods. It’s not the laziness we have to account for as much as the conformity.
The brighter side of the conformity coin is that we are all just as likely to adopt positive habits as long as the systemic flow is with us and enough people have adopted. Create systems and structures that make walking and biking (or mass transit) the paths of least resistance for getting round, and ordinary people with the usual mix of virtues and vices will stop driving. Something close to this describes cities like Boston and New York, still choked with car traffic, but also filled with residents who don’t drive, for reasons of convenience more than holiness.
It’s difficult to overstate how disposed the people of our culture are to pick out individuals and institutions to blame for social problems—and also to solve them. The CEO of one of the biggest banks reportedly confessed in the wake of the ’08 crash that he was well aware that his bank’s reckless investment frenzy was pushing the economy to the brink, but that he couldn’t help participating in and thereby reinforcing the frenzy. His competitors were in it full tilt, his bank was raking in the green and anyway he would quickly be replaced if he applied the brakes. No excuse? Yes, on a personal level, no excuse. There is a box within which personal accountability is very real and very meaningful. But outside the box of personal ethics, the CEO—and the rest of us—were pawns of a systemic tragedy. Clearly, our economic system selects for greed, so acquisitive types are rewarded and rise to positions of power and wealth. Our economic system also must grow simply to maintain itself. Put these systemic features together and bubbles such as we experience (bigger these days, and more frequent) are highly predictable. The exponential growth of our money supply begged for all the accumulated dough to get busy somewhere, somehow, anywhere, anyhow. This systemic necessity compelled the invention of impenetrably complex and risky investment tools, lending money to anyone in any manner.
The “too much greed” chorus doesn’t cut very deeply into the crisis, looked at this way. Only slightly more systemic-minded are those who blame lax oversight and regulation. But given the pressure to grow and invest, the laxity itself was predictable. In a system, the parts self-organize, or dance with each other, to serve the aim of the system (like growth), and generally the parts choreograph themselves with remarkably little awareness of the total effect. Certainly, tighter oversight of investment practices and regulating policies would manage the frenzy some. But the fact is, as of this writing, the Federal Reserve is lending 2.8 billion each day of fresh new dollars into the economy to keep a recession from dropping down into depression. This suggests that solving the crisis will require more than policy change and firmer oversight.
The world is deeply indebted to Mahatma Gandhi for demonstrating the power of nonviolent resistance in overthrowing British rule in India. But his greater contribution to the social and ecological crises of both his day and ours is arguably his “Constructive Program”—his insistence on creating sustainable, local, very small scale economies. Many thinkers and doers since Gandhi (and before him) have developed theoretical frameworks and practical tools for redirecting the systemic flow that has been flushing us all into greater inequality, insecurity, and ecological ruin on a global level.
Clearly, failure to adequately redirect the current flow could spell the end of humanity in the near term, but the promise of the global ‘relocalization’ movement lies primarily in its systemic orientation. More precisely, this movement is more radical than prior liberation and libertarian movements because of how it contextualizes the essential roles large scale political and economic institutions play in sustaining the global industrial growth system. Yet relocalization is not ideological in any traditional sense. Old-fashioned, ancient, and indigenous wisdom and life skills are being worked into a variety of new experiments in community economics: small groups of people, bound to each other as equals and to their local geography, supporting each other to meet basic needs before selling their ‘comparative advantage’ surplus to the wider community or a network of communities.
For obvious reasons, relocalization is anything but a global, centralized movement. There is, for example, no unified rejection of large institutions or political regimes that might continue in some capacity to serve small communities and networks of communities. But the primary unit is the community, not the state or corporation. It does translate into a dramatic systemic shift in how we structure our lives. It will mean travelling less in general, and travelling shorter distances. And less driving.
Systems scientist Donella Meadows emphasized that the prime mover in systemic change is not the action itself of creating change, but the mindset, or paradigm, that powers and informs it. There is no way around changing minds to change systems. Public policy mandates forcing top down behavioral change that lasts can be effective mostly to the extent to which the coerced behavior becomes habit-forming and changes thinking over time. Upon seizing power in 1949, the communist regime in China outlawed the foot binding of women, among many other cultural practices deemed abusively archaic. Indeed, foot binding has stopped. States in the U.S. mandated recycling. Recycling is now considered de rigueur. Political revolutions and policy reforms change thinking through changing behavior, relying on coercion and good citizenship. Propaganda campaigns that accompany coercion, such as the DUI initiative in the U.S., reflect the need to change thinking to change behavior. It can work, but effective policy can never get too far ahead of popular culture, as the pathetic results of so many legal mandates such as alcohol and drug use prohibition demonstrate (In these instances, a culture of addiction pushes addictive behavior, the reality of personal decision-making and responsibility notwithstanding).
More deeply, the massive shift to relocalize is simply not likely to unfold in this way. And so far it hasn’t. Local government initiatives (notably in cities such as Copenhagen, San Francisco, Curitiba, Brazil, and Ogawamachi, Japan) have shown that government can play a vital role in re-empowering local, sustainable economies. Otherwise, thousands of conversations, starting with two people, have spawned thousands of promising alternatives to globalization worldwide that center on creating local, community-based economies. In my state of Rhode Island, there is a rapidly growing local food production and distribution system. Internationally, small groups of people have created over a thousand ‘Transition Initiatives’ to reclaim their own labor and local resources. In Auroville, India; Faoune, Senegal and many other communities around the world, communitarian eco-villages have experimented with localized alternatives to the global economy.
Relocalizing our personal and economic lives is an example of a systems thinking departure from the tendency to rely on comparatively unrealistic aspirations for either individual betterment at one end and government policy solutions at the other. Learning to see, understand and respect the power of systemic behavioral patterns and traps (once established, systems tend to generate their own behavior) amounts itself to a mindset change that enables structural innovations, including relocalization efforts. Additionally, relocalization recognizes that the global, industrial growth economy now with us is unreliable and unsustainable and must be displaced. Viable alternatives must answer to our deep human need to belong in community and connect to our land base. Our culture’s individualism is a bloated caricature of authentic individuality. Through relocalization we are connected to, not separate from or above, each other and the Earth.
As author Daniel Quinn insists, a change in cultural vision this deep has the power and know-how to transform systems, structures and behavior without programs, as we’ve come to know and rely on them. Still, most adopters of this change can and may grow into the evolving cultural vision as they settle into new living patterns carved out by others. Activists leading change need to recognize and appreciate that there is no shortcut around this deep complexity in building a just and sustainable world, but also that this ‘long haul’ approach may produce surprisingly quick results. In a world addicted to solitary motoring to get around, converting drivers one by one into cyclists will take much more time than we have.
Jim Tull is a teacher and social activist with 37 years of experience in confronting local, national and international social problems. For 15 years, including 12 as co-director, he worked at Amos House, a Catholic Worker-inspired hospitality house offering meals, shelter and social services to the poor and homeless in Providence. Since leaving Amos House in 1995, he has taught courses in Community Service and Social Change, Peace, Environmental and Global Studies and Philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. He facilitates workshops and retreats on community building, cultural transformation and deep ecology.