What 5 Things can You Do to Change the System?

Kurt Vonnegut saying

A few weeks ago a reader on this blog asked me an interesting question that I have been mulling over for some while: can I list 5 things everyone needs to do to change the system?

It’s a tall order, but I decided to give it a bash. I don’t plan to prescribe anything here, and no one should take my word for it as I’m no paragon of purism. But I have at least dabbled in all that I will suggest, and would like to invite dialogue around those suggestions, and others.

One glaring problem stares me down: how can we change the system when we don’t have the power? Political pressure and consumer action have little impact if they are not attached to a grotesquely proportioned bank account – the Golden Rule (facetiously: he who has the gold makes the rules) has seen to it that we lack the clout of the corporatocracy. So what are we to do with the diminished Power of One that we each possess?

I figured my response should not just be things everyone should do, but things everyone can do – at least to some extent – and can scale up. I dislike grandiose “solutions” that are inaccessible to the majority, as aiming for objectives as disparate as attempting to exert top-down political reform or buying land for an eco-bunker is simply unrealistic for most ordinary folks, and will not make the difference where it is most needed. However, rejecting the grandiose and inaccessible does not mean my suggestions are unambitious. I am not about to suggest that all folks need to do is change their lightbulbs, install solar panels, buy a Prius (well, if you have the money – I don’t), vote Green, and link arms and sing Kumbaya. If only it were that simple. It isn’t.

I don’t think in those mechanistic, reductionist terms whereby every problem can be pared down to its constituent parts, and each part can be tackled separately so that the whole picture, when you put it back together again, looks rosy. I am endlessly frustrated by those who tout electric cars as “the solution” to vehicle emissions, as though problem-solving were actually that linear. A holistic, systemic solution would ask questions like “what are our needs?”, with responses such as “to get from A to B for work without wrecking the environment” (that caveat must be the bottom line – nature don’t negotiate), leading to an array of options for how to get to work with as small a footprint as possible – and I don’t think getting a Prius would be high on the list, not when there’s public transport and cycling to contend with as much lower footprint alternatives. I’m interested in a systemic approach to change that actually digs at the roots of our predicament: our culture and the way of life we take for granted. Although we desperately need new stories to replace our broken and toxic narratives, to tell those stories is not enough; we need to live them.

So, with a systemic approach in mind, and a conscious effort to avoid reductionist compartmentalisation of our planetary predicament that would lead to pseudo-solutions at best, here are 5 things I think everyone can – and should – do to change the system, or at least mildly disrupt Business As Usual:

1. Detach from the financial system as much as possible

This comes in a series of steps. Firstly I think it’s necessary for folks to get out of debt in order to free themselves from the constraints of the restrictive employment paradigm and being beholden to external influence – particularly that of parasitic banking institutions. Most other changes are not possible, or are certainly very difficult, while one is still beholden to debt, so it makes sense to free oneself up in order to open other avenues of opportunity.

Whilst still flirting with one foot in the financial system it is advisable to move your money to more ethical locations. For sure there aren’t any that can really be termed “secure” in a failing economic climate, so ensuring that at least one’s capital is not used for the purpose of funding ecological destruction is the least, and possibly also the most, we can all do with our money. This means taking your money out of the bank and putting it in a local, ethically oriented credit union, and transferring your superannuation to an ethical fund – preferably one you can self-manage.

If you are fortunate enough to have money left over for investment purposes (presuming your material needs are already secured for the long haul) then for goodness’ sake don’t invest in bubbles, or any Big Business at all for that matter. Instead, choose to forego large returns on investment for smaller, safer returns on local small and medium enterprises. Shifting your money from Wall Street to Main Street, as Michael Shuman puts it, will buffer local communities somewhat in times of hardship, and decentralize financial power.

Once you’re in a position where you have a little more control over your finances and you have your money where you want it, then you can work on gradually detaching from dependence on debt-based currency. This can be achieved via freesharing, time-banking, exchange and barter, and using community currencies.

With regard to item #1 I’m no non-monetary heavyweight, but I have made a few achievements that I think are in reach for most. My partner and I cleared our debt in 2013, and switched to an ethical superannuation fund (pats self on back). We are now looking into self-managed options. We moved our money to a credit union in 2012, in my case away from ANZ – and I should have done that much sooner (no pat on back). We freeshare as much as possible, driving our bandwagon slowly enough through our community so that others can jump on. Folks round here ain’t cashed up, and we do need one another to fill gaps in our needs, which makes it all the easier to ask for something. I think it’s easier to connect when there are genuine needs than it is when everyone is so independent that they have no need for one another.

2. Connect with community in a meaningful way

We all need community connection. Humans are inherently social creatures, and we have needs that can only be met via a complex web of interconnection with our fellow humans. Ancient humans traditionally lived in large, non-nuclear family units, with various members of the group fulfilling the many functions required for survival. As human babies are not sufficiently developed for independence at birth, mothers require the support of a community in order to care for and provide food and other basic needs for their young ones. This has led to the evolution of complex community networks in which individuals are both generalists, with regard meeting day-to-day needs, and specialists, with regard to more specialised skills. We have evolved as a communitarian species, and thrive on the nurturing that a community offers.

We benefit from connecting with our community through work, rest and play, and especially via  providing supportive services to those most in need. Although folks these days tend to be pretty time-poor there are small-scale things we can all do in our communities that can be scaled up when more time becomes available to us. As a real-life example, in our local community my partner and I visit elderly ladies to help with home repairs, my partner deals with everyone’s computer issues – and hooks them up to our wi-fi for a cost-sharing deal, we take pre-cooked meals to a neighbour who is terminally ill and has little family support, we dispense advice to teens who sometimes seek refuge and a listening ear at our place, took care of a neighbour’s cat for a month, and we even broke into a neighbour’s unit once to check if he was ok after not seeing him for a few days. He was fine, but we did our due diligence, and that’s what matters ;-) These are all little things that take place within a 5 minute walk from home and usually only take a few minutes to a couple of hours a couple of times a week. And it all keeps us involved in our community. And, of course, there are those times when we have needs too. We’ve made extensive use of the community garden, we’ve borrowed tools, we’ve scored lifts, one neighbour cuts our grass, another brings us banana cake, yet another passes on good finds from the Dump Shop, and we’ve borrowed countless cups of sugar. And we’ve rallied together in support of one another and our collective needs in the face of injustice.

Honestly though, I’m no communitarian heavyweight either. I long to be replaced in many capacities by folks who are better at community than I am. I stand in awe – and a little envy –  of those with community organizing and leadership skills and I could easily name a handful of people I’d love to teleport to my community to glue it all together (you know who you are). I’m better at talking and writing about community than I am at nurturing it, and have much to learn from my much more introverted partner’s selflessness and the nurturing friends I am so privileged to have in my life. Society so often neglects to thank the nurturers of this world, but I think that community can change that and celebrate their vital presence.

3. Powerdown

This is one I’m passionate and a tad purist about. I can be annoying. I apologise if I sound preachy at any point.

We all need to reduce our dependency on peaking resources. Whether we like it or not, the party’s over, and we are going to have to learn to make do with less. No time like the present, and there will be many benefits.

Folks who can should: downshift from a car to a bike + public transport (and the adventurous may make use of collaborative consumption hubs for private vehicle needs); become a locavore and make the effort to consume foods and other goods that have minimal ecological impact; downshift to a smaller and less energy-intensive home (and set up an off-grid solar energy system if possible – although this option isn’t available to most renters like myself and folks without bags of cash). And, as anyone who knows me is aware, I have a mild obsession with plastic – we really need to be shedding the baggage of petroleum-dependent toxic waste items, not just the plastic bags. Let’s just use our noggin and say no to single-use plastic items. Every time.

Living a less energy-intensive domestic life is easy enough if you don’t have the money for lots of shiny gadgets and energy-sucking devices – and it doesn’t stop at changing your lightbulbs (although it would be good if you didn’t have them on for so many hours each day – candlelight or living more in tune with the sunrise-sunset cycle are cheaper and greener; the sunrise-sunset cycle was something I really appreciated about travelling in northern Laos where folks are still not hooked up to grid energy and live simple, healthy, communitarian lives). For those who do have the money, and thus the possessions, it requires a shift in attitude from accumulating material wealth because you can, to voluntarily opting out of the accumulation game. This is not really culturally endorsed at present, but it is the path we are all headed for anyway, so, no time like the present to start living modestly. Choosing to freecycle and opt for second-hand goods helps cut the rate of production of new goods, and all associated destruction and pollution. EVERY stick of furniture in our house is second-hand, most of my clothes are pre-loved (folks are floored when I rock up looking flash in a well-cut jacket and high-heeled shoes that look new and only cost pocket money – I enjoy breaking the stereotype of what a downshifter is expected to look like), and I even picked up a set of professional-quality cookware on hard rubbish day in Adelaide 3 years ago; our laptops are our offices and indoor playgrounds, and we don’t have a telly. I don’t even have a mobile phone. What for? To be disturbed 24/7 by people whose expectant beck-and-call I am at the mercy of? No thanks. Email is great; I can answer it when I’m good and ready (although I should apologise for not being on the ball lately – I am getting back on track since recovering from burnout), and I don’t have to make small talk. And frankly (turn away if you hate preachiness), I can’t stomach the idea of any more slaves than it took to mine the rare earth metals required for construction of my laptop suffering for the sake of my “need” to “feel connected”. I know how to connect with people without the latest fancy-pants iCrap.

Locavorism has become such a popular trend that there’s really no excuse not to anymore. Unless you happen to live somewhere where food cannot be grown at all, in which case perhaps it’s an idea to assess whether there is a viable future in such a location. What constitutes local is a definition that varies, but an often-repeated radius is about 500km, which is not all that local really, although there are certainly staple items in most people’s diets that we’d all struggle to locate locally – such as rice, wheat, and chocolate (I love all of those, passionately, and will be sad when they eventually become absent from my life due to contracting economic horizons – although I know I should probably give them up for environmental reasons before then…). I’m glad to live in a semi-rural area where it’s much further to a supermarket than it is to a locally-owned organic market garden – I walk less than 20 minutes for the privilege of greens that are freshly picked the same day – and for some things I only have to step outside my door. There is a surprising amount of food that can be grown in a one-metre perimeter around a duplex cabin! I haven’t bought eggplant, zucchini, capsicums, chillies, or any kind of herb, since I don’t know how long. But I won’t pretend to believe it’s enough to live on. It certainly isn’t, either in terms of calories or variety. And I fear greatly for food security in the not-too-distant future. Localizing the horizon in that regard is sensible to do in advance of when it becomes a necessity.

Downshifting from a car to a bike may sound like it’s just too hard for a lot of people, especially those who commute. However, there are a lot of trips we make in the course of a week that are short enough to be able to cycle, and public transport routes are improving in many places and offer a comparatively stress-free – and usually cheaper – commute. I have owned two banged-up old cars in my lifetime, each for about two years. I did not drive at all for the five years between 2007-2012. Now that we are reasonably settled (at least for now) my partner and I are planning to sell our car and replace it with a couple of bikes. It’s a bit of a daunting prospect, but we need to get over our perceived dependency, we need the exercise, and there aren’t many trips we make that couldn’t be done on a bike. For trips to the city we’ll just have to figure out carpooling options or lifts to the train station (it’s a 20 minute drive, so quite a long bike-ride, and no bus). All this is made much easier for us because we downshifted our working arrangements – i.e. we work from home, running our own business, working the hours that suit us, serving only the clients whose work is in line with our values.

4. Unhook from the employment paradigm

OK, this one really is easier said than done. But the ideal is not to be beholden to the contracting employment paradigm during a period of economic decline that guarantees not only extensive job losses and pitiful purchasing power, but also government-imposed austerity, which means the cessation of unemployment cheques is a reasonable prospect in the not-too-distant future.

So, with that in mind, perhaps the choice to step outside of one’s comfort zone and take a few risks might become a more appealing option. Starting up your own business – whether as a sole-trader, a partnership, a cooperative, or whatnot – is not as hard as many think (I can advise if anyone’s really keen to kickstart  – just send me a private message). Folks just need to figure out what needs they can meet with their skills-set, and create a business plan that is financially viable and within your means. There’s no point sucking your thumb and sulking if you can’t afford to set up your dream business (and please don’t get in debt with the bank to make the dream come true – that’s just playing with fire at this late stage in the game). My partner and I set up a business that operates from our home office, on a shoestring budget, and meets real needs. We didn’t require start-up capital – our resources were in our hands and our heads, and a few pieces of office equipment that we accumulated over years so barely noticed its expense.

Being your own boss means you work only the hours you need to meet your material needs. Save the rest of your time for family, friends, community connection, creativity, and volunteer activity (be that activist, artist, carer, permablitzer, or whatever works for you). If you’ve powered down you simply won’t need a massive amount of money, and can enjoy more of your time. My time is basically divided 3 ways: irregular part-time work for money, a bit more time volunteering for the non-profit organization I co-run, and some (now more than I used to allow myself) leisure – I love to read, write (and blog), walk, watch old movies, create culinary wonders (they are not all wonders in a “good” way), and play with my cat, who goes ballistic for his bungy-mouse.

But how is being your own boss any benefit when there’s little to no money circulating once we hit the economic nadir? Well, being your own boss means you’re not going to arbitrarily lose your job because your boss can’t afford to keep you on. It means you can choose to charge for your services according to what or how people can pay – this means you are flexible to extended parameters of exchange and barter, community currencies, and paying it forward. There are many more ways to meet our material needs than the employment paradigm lets on.

Bottom line: if you know the employment paradigm is on its way out, do you plan to jump or wait until you are pushed?

5. Work on your own communication and collaboration skills

This is vital. For everyone. And it is something everyone can do – no excuses.

Most people can benefit greatly from learning non-violent communication, group dynamics, personality dynamics, negotiating skills, mediation, facilitation, and various group decision-making and governance techniques. This is a necessary step for changing more than just oneself and one’s own life, as to go beyond the self one needs to be able to communicate and collaborate across the borderlands between different worldviews, disciplines and allegiances.

We are going to need to learn how to communicate effectively and collaborate with people who aren’t “like us” – people of different cultures and backgrounds, minorities in the community, people with disabilities and mental health disorders, addicts and trauma victims, and whoever it is we think is taking our jerbs. We’re all in this together and you can’t pick your family. We have to find our common ground, with mutual respect and appreciation, and no greater value accorded any individual or group than any other.

Before you are able to collaborate effectively over larger-scale solutions for any semblance of a systemically sustainable solution you need to be equipped with these skills and attitudes. We are going to need to learn how to express ourselves and conduct compassionate dialogue about the converging crises of ecological and economic collapse, and the post-peak future. I can probably list the excellent communicators I know on one hand. I am not one of them, but I am learning. I’m learning not to dismiss people with different worldviews and political attitudes (my community has taught me much about how folks who are so different can complement one another’s efforts). And I’m learning to drive my bandwagon slowly enough that others can hop on.

Once  we are equipped with a solid set of communication and collaboration skills we can then get down to the business of interdisciplinary organization and start to make a difference beyond our immediate sphere. The true test of our skills comes when entering areas of disagreement, and crises require harmonious responses.

Changing the System

I can’t promise that any of these activities will change the system. They are really more like efforts to undermine the system and establish the footholds of an alternative along the fringes of our culture. In all honesty I  don’t think there’s much chance of anything changing our current system – it’s en route to collapse, and what will follow, if anything, will certainly be a new system. So while I don’t think there’s any point getting anyone’s hopes up about a radical systemic change that will set us on course for a sustainable new paradigm (I used to think this could be done, but the inertia of our culture and the magnitude of the task far outweigh the time and resources we have available) I do think there’s value in nutting out some useful keystone concepts and behaviours that will underpin the emergence of resilient pockets of society through the hardships ahead.

Come what may, at least we will have tried, and capitulation to the worst-case scenario is not something to which I am yet sufficiently jaded to condemn myself or anyone else.