In 2009, I began to grapple with the question of how we can create a sustainable world. I came to the conclusion that pointing my finger at politics, business and society is not enough. My then excessive lifestyle is part of the problem (damn that).
So I decided to change my lifestyle.
As a mechanical engineer, I started looking at the numbers. They told me that my diet, travel, housing and clothing made up about 30% of my CO2 emissions.
So I ate vegan, avoided air travel, wore the same dress for 15 months and nearly went zero waste. Also, I lectured anyone who came near me that he or she should do the same. The result: very awkward dinners, followed by fewer invitations.
I felt guilty and hypocritical. I was still tones away from getting to a CO2 footprint of 2.3t. That’s the amount available per person on this planet, if we were to distribute it equally.
The challenges of each and every one of us to live a sustainable lifestyle are manifold. I do not want to go into detail here, because that’s not what this article is about. I would like to mention the areas in which we encounter challenges.
On the one hand, we might lack external resources. They can be ecological, social or economic. On the other hand, we might lack internal resources. Our knowledge, our abilities and our emotional resources.
In the West we usually have an excess of external resources. We also hardly lack internal resources. We have all the information needed. We also haveguidance and ways to use this information.
What I failed with were emotional challenges.
I was stuck in an internal contradiction.
I noticed I wasn’t alone with that, so I looked closer, what constitutes this contradiction.
I saw the need for systemic change to meet the challenges.
At the same time I was aware that I was one of 7 something billion people. Even if I reduce my CO2 footprint to 2.3t. Even if I live a “perfect sustainable lifestyle,” would not the majority of people at least have to join in?
I am an individual and it needs systemic change.
The second part of the problem was that I realised that others had to change, too. Surprise.
I informed. Listened. Gave advice. And noticed: nothing changes.
When I tried to persuade others to live a more sustainable lifestyle, I realised that it’s a tough job.
So, on the one hand, I saw the reality that we are individuals and that we cannot change others.
And on the other hand, I saw that we need systemic change and that others have to change, too.
The question that came out of this was: how do we solve this?
We can not change what we need.
But what if we change the other side? What if we change our understanding of reality.
“But you can’t change reality. It’s objective” You might argue. And in some way, you are right. But not entirely.
What is Reality.
Albert Einstein is supposed to have said “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
What constitutes reality is a great philosophical question. I don’t want to get into details at this point.
To simplify it, let’s say that our reality evolves from the stories we tell ourselves. When we tell them often enough, we perceive them as real. Our basic assumptions about reality determine what we consider normal and desirable. They structure what is good or bad, right or wrong. In short, they shape what we do with the world.
Our understanding of reality describes our understanding of being, also called our ontology. It is the window through which we look at the world. It structures our worldview. It also restricts what we perceive. We can never see the world “as it is”, we see it as the window is.
As we talk about systems change, the question is: how do we perceive systems today?
A new Reality.
Our predominant understanding of the world is that we can divide it into parts. It’s the result of the industrial revolution. We have a car that we want to make faster. We rip it into parts, optimise some of these parts, assemble it together and tada: We have a faster car.
Surprisingly, the world is not a car.
Science understands the earth as a cognitive complex systems. This means the following:
- We can’t predict the outcome of an intervention within the system.
- The system contains self-aware elements (that’s us humans). As people we can determine the direction in which the system moves.
- Everything connects to everything.
In practice, this means that we need to question our understanding of the self. We need to question who or what we are.
When we understand the world as a cognitive, complex system, it opens up the possibility of understanding reality and ourselves on the basis of profound connections. In other words, individuals and society are not incompatible opposites like water and oil. They are more connected and interdependent. “I” and “we” have meaning only in relation to each other.
Whether we are angry or even-tempered, whether we are peaceful or fearful, determines whether we are committed world citizens, thoughtless consumers or bitter activists.
Our society is shaped by us. And we are shaped through our society.
You are not You.
So we have to go beyond the idea of the individual.
The activist and author Charles Eisenstein talks about interbeing. He describes interbeing as follows
“Interbeing means more than Interconnection or Interdependency, which kind of suggests separate selves ‘having’ relationships. Interbeing is more of an understanding that we are relationships, that my very existence depends or draws from or includes your existence. So my well-being is intimately connected to your well-being or to the well-being of the river, the ocean, the forest, people across the world, and so forth, because I am not really separate from you. And that means that, in the story of Interbeing, I know that whatever I do to the world will come back to me, somehow.”
The French philosopher Deleuze suggests that we consider society as composed of dividends. That means we are all part of each other and influence each other.
Developmental psychology tells us that through the interaction with others only, does an individual become a self .
The political scientist and philosopher Freinacht describes the individual as transindividual. The term transindivual refers to the fact that our existence is always relational. It means that our relationships are more fundamental than the individual elements.
If we regard our existence as transindividuals, as always in relationship, then we acknowledge that we are formed by society and at the same time we form society, that what we do is always part of the whole. That we are both.
What does that mean just a little more specifically?
Some examples of what this means…
… when you do respect and serve the soil then you get higher crop yields.
… when you do respect and serve your friends, you will have more real and deep relationships to them
… when you do use a to-go-plastic cup, the disposal will become part of the ecosystem
… when you are kind to the cashier, he will feel better
… when you take the train instead of the plain, you will emit less CO2
When you start to comprehend that everything you do, you do as a part of the system, you will see that there is no such thing as an individual, or individual action.
So for the rest of your life, ask yourself the following question:
“What can you do if you understand yourself as a transindividual?”