The Power of Social Movements


Throughout history, social movements have played a powerful part in stimulating rapid periods of cultural
evolution, where new sets of ideas, values, policies, or norms are rapidly adopted by large groups of people and subsequently embedded firmly into a culture. From abolishing slavery and ensuring civil rights for all to securing women’s suffrage and liberating states nonviolently from colonial rulers, social movements have dramatically redirected societal paths in just an eye blink of human history.

For sustainable societies to take root quickly in the decades to come, the power of social movements will need to be fully tapped. Already, interconnected environmental and social movements have emerged across the world that under the right circumstances could catalyze into just the force needed to accelerate this cultural shift. Yet it will be important to find ways to frame the sustainability movement to make it not just possible but attractive. This will increase the likelihood that the changes will spread beyond the pioneers and excite vast populations.

This section looks at some ways this is happening already. John de Graaf of the Take Back Your Time movement describes one way to “sell” sustainability that is likely to appeal to many people: working fewer hours. Many employees are working longer hours even as gains in productivity would allow shorter workdays and longer vacations. Taking back time will help lower stress, allow healthier lifestyles, better distribute work, and even help the environment. This last effect will be due not just to less consumption thanks to lower discretionary incomes but also to people having enough free time to choose the more rewarding and often more sustainable choice—cooking at home with friends instead of eating fast food, for example, making more careful consumer decisions, even taking slower but more active and relaxing modes of transport.

Closely connected to Take Back Your Time is the voluntary simplicity movement, as Cecile Andrews, co-editor of Less is More, and Wanda Urbanska, producer and host of Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, discuss. This encourages people to simplify their lives and focus on inner well-being instead of material wealth. It can help inspire people to shift away from the consumer dream and instead rebuild personal ties, spend more time with family and on leisure activities, and find space in their lives for being engaged citizens. Through educational efforts, storytelling, and community organizing, the benefits of the lost wisdom of living simply can be rediscovered and spread, transforming not just personal lifestyles but broader societal priorities.

A third movement that could help redirect broader cultural norms, traditions, and values is the fairly recent development of ecovillages. Sustainability educator Jonathan Dawson of the Findhorn ecovillage paints a picture of the exciting role that these are playing around the world. These sustainability incubators are reinventing what is natural and spreading these ideas to broader society—not just through modeling these new norms but through training and courses in ecovillage living, permaculture, and local economics. Similar ideas are also spreading through cohousing communities, Transition Towns, and even green commercial developments like Dockside Green in Canada and Hammarby Sjöstad in Sweden.

Two Boxes in this section describe some other exciting initiatives. One provides an overview of a new political movement called décroissance (in English, “degrowth”), which is an important effort to remind people that not only can growth be detrimental, but sometimes a sustainable decline is actually optimal. And a Box on the Slow Food movement describes the succulent power of organizing people through their taste buds. Across cultures and time, food has played an important role in helping to define people’s realities. Mobilizing food producers as well as consumers to clamor for healthy, fair, tasty, sustainable cuisines can be a shrewd strategy to shift food systems and, through them, broader social and economic systems.

These are just a few of the dozens and dozens of social movements that could have been examined. It is just our imaginations that limit how we can present sustainability in ways that inspire people to turn off their televisions and join the movement. Only then, with millions of people rallying to confront political and economic systems and working to shift perceptions of what should feel “natural” and what should not, will we be able to transform our cultures into something that will withstand the test of time.

—Erik Assadourian

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