If You Want to Create Change, Focus on Systems
Changing systems changes mindsets.
Posted April 24, 2019
I became a humane educator more than 30 years ago, teaching about interconnected environmental, human rights, and animal protection issues in order to inspire deeper empathy, better critical thinking, and more ethical behavior among my students.
When I began this work my primary goal was to motivate and prepare my students to make choices in their lives that do the most good and least harm for people, animals, and the environment.
Now, however, my primary goal has evolved to prepare young people to be solutionaries for a better world. While part of being a solutionary includes an effort to make personal choices that do the most good and least harm, the broader goal of a solutionary is to transform unhealthy and inhumane systems so that everyone can more easily participate in societies that are compassionate, fair, and restorative.
When I use the term systems in the context of this post, I’m referring to human-created structures, procedures, and networks that consist of interrelated and interdependent elements, such as economic systems, legal systems, energy systems, military systems, and political systems.
We may wish to minimize our personal carbon footprint, yet no one reading this post can avoid fossil fuels. They are embedded in every system in which we take part—agriculture, transportation, heating and cooling, construction, production, infrastructure, and technology (i.e. the computer on which I’m writing this post). We won’t escape complicity until we change the systems.
While we may assiduously try to avoid creating trash, should we have to go to a hospital, waste will be significant and unavoidable. And while we may choose not to buy personal care and household products tested on animals in painful experiments, the medications we’ll be given in that hospital certainly will have been. We won’t have any ability to avoid these harmful practices until we change the systems.
Perhaps we are dedicated to democracy. We advocate for candidates whose policies we support; we contact our legislators frequently; we never miss an election. Despite our dedication, however, the U.S. system of democracy will remain corrupted (no matter which party is in power) by corporate donations and lobbyists, as well as by a small number of billionaire donors who can profoundly influence elections, until we change the system.
We may be committed to anti-racism while (if white) remaining advantaged by racist systems that have enabled us to enjoy unearned educational, economic, housing, legal, career, and other privileges. Our good intentions will not prevent injustices from continuing until we change the systems.
Because we are part of societies, we are part of systems, and most of us readily participate in these systems without giving them much thought.
When a new system enters the mainstream, that means it has become widely adopted, whether that new system is electricity, internal combustion engines, vaccination programs, pesticides, the marketing of disposable products, the Internet, cell phones, or social media.
Sometimes new systems are profoundly helpful, increasing our quality of life and life expectancy (e.g. electricity and vaccines). Sometimes they are helpful, but also have significant negative unintended consequences (e.g. electricity generated by coal, pesticides, gasoline-powered cars, and disposable products). Sometimes we are barely aware when pernicious new systems that are oppressive, unjust, and destructive arise (e.g. for-profit prisons).
One of the primary jobs of a solutionary is to identify the flaws, problems, and the unintended negative consequences in systems; recognize the many factors that lead to their creation and adoption, and seek to reform and/or develop new and better systems.
One example of solutionary work that’s being done to transform a destructive and inhumane system is the movement to produce affordable lab-cultivated, clean meat.
Once the technology is perfected and becomes affordable, this clean meat – grown from animal cells – will enable people to eat actual meat without causing suffering and death to animals and without wasting so many resources and energy in the inefficient conversion process of feeding vast quantities of grain and legumes to farmed animals to produce a much smaller quantity of meat.
Clean meat will be free from antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, PCBs, and other pollutants. It will use dramatically less water and land and cause far less air, soil, and ocean pollution.
Clean meat is a solutionary solution to a host of problems. Once brought to scale, it could put an end to perhaps the most destructive, inhumane, and unsustainable system on the planet.
In his essay, “Lab-grown meat could let humanity ignore a serious moral failing” (Dec. 14, 2017), Ben Bramble, an assistant professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, argues that while clean meat will do the good things mentioned above, it will still represent a moral failing because people will eat it without having to examine or change their behaviors based on ethics.
In other words, once we have affordable clean meat, people won’t have to question their choices and adopt a vegan diet as a moral imperative.
As an ethical vegan, I understand Bramble’s perspective, but I disagree with his conclusion.
Habits are hard to shift.
Empathy for those who are far-removed from us is a tenuous emotion.
Complicity in exploitive and destructive systems tends to impede our ability to introspect about those systems and take honest stock of them (and ourselves).
Mindsets are, well, set. Yet, mindsets do change, and one of the ways they shift is when new systems support new ways of thinking.
I believe we can and will become more morally aware and consistently ethical, and changing systems will be one of the biggest contributors to this shift.
Once we are participants in just, humane, and healthy systems, we will likely look back on our current systems with shock and dismay, the way we look back on the African slave trade or child labor today. As Ralph Nader said, "the blasphemy of the past can become the commonplace of the future."
When we become more ethical through the development of more ethical systems, we’ll experience a big win for humanity and a bigger win for the world.
So, what systems are you inspired to change? How will you take action?