Understanding the power of individual actions
In the time of coronavirus
Recently while attending an all-day orientation for Sunrise, a climate action movement, I was recommended Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit as a good entry point to learn more about direct action. The orientation and book were my first forays into activism of any kind. Despite knowing the examples of Thoreau, MLK, and Gandhi, I had always been somewhat skeptical of direct action as a meaningful tool for change in modern times. Reading Solnit’s book started to shift my perspective, allowing me to see what I was perhaps missing. The chapter “On the Indirectness of Direct Action” was the most persuasive. It chipped away my belief that most activism was ineffective since it never yielded immediate results. From that chapter, this quote has stayed with me:
“Nobody can know the full consequences of their actions and history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways”
That individual action can reach out from the present into the far future by unknowable means explains why activism works. It’s not always about the immediate accession to demands, but a long and winding path that invariably plays itself out. Participating in a sit-in at a public official’s office does not enact new policy the next day, but video of that action on YouTube just might inspire two or three viewers to become politically engaged years later. Repeated over and over, change happens slowly and then all at once. This gave me a framework for how to think about the effectiveness of activism, but that previous belief was still only chipped, not exactly torn down. And then the time of coronavirus began.
A pandemic is a particular moment that amplifies every individual action. Not going to a crowded gathering can simultaneously save a grandmother in New York tomorrow and another one in New Delhi five months from now. Each person limiting their interactions reduces the chance of the virus spreading and when large masses cooperate the effect is all the more powerful. When framed in this context, I have no doubts about the value of individual action, it resonates with me deeply. I cannot know the full consequences of my small act to stay at home, but do believe it has helped limit the spread in someplace unknown to me. The resulting question is what happens when this time ends, when a decision to go to a restaurant no longer carries the same weight.
The answer is that my new belief in the power of individual action will remain. This time of the virus has revealed that my choices always have and will continue to reverberate into the world. I still might underestimate and not understand the ways by which change can happen but am no longer skeptical that it will happen. Many recent articles have expounded on this premise: What happens if the same sense of importance for individual action is collectively maintained after the virus has passed and applied to the problems that the future holds. I’m ready to find out and plan on doing so by becoming more involved with climate activism.
In writing this I’ve struggled with the fact that my own journey to this point may seem trivial. After all, everyone is told as a child that actions have consequences. I have never doubted that, but in the context of direct action I’ve been quite skeptical. And even within the context of direct action I fear I may come off as aloof to what is blatantly obvious. Nevertheless, I’m sharing this to record how my thinking has developed and to listen to feedback on how it could improve. My best recommendation for anyone seeking to further understand what I’ve tried to communicate is to read Hope in the Dark.