Many of us care a lot about environmental or social issues, but the reality is that we can’t address those issues without political sustainability.
“The personal is political.”
The above phrase really ignited my political activism during my university days when I realized that the issues I care most about are not just personal issues.
I want to be able to breathe clean air and be free from discrimination. I want the same for my fellow humans. Those desires, among others, cannot be addressed by mere individual actions on my part.
Rather, big issues such as these need to be solved via systemic change, starting with the government.
In order to solve these issues and achieve a truly sustainable future, we need political sustainability. And we need it much more than any of the individual actions that you or I can do in our personal lives.
What is political sustainability?
Continuing with the idea that sustainability means something that can last, political sustainability refers to a political system that can last. Let’s elaborate on what that entails.
As we established in my last several posts, humanity won’t last if we don’t make changes right now to sustain ourselves in the future. Because of that, political sustainability depends on issues like environmental and social sustainability.
However, sustainability in those issues won’t be accomplished without political sustainability. Our governments vitally need to address the many aspects of sustainability if they want to continue to exist.
I previously wrote that political systems need to work in the interests of their citizens and also give those citizens a way in which they can effect change when they feel their needs are not being met.
So there are two main components in political sustainability.
The first component is that of the government (including the politicians who have a say in how it’s run). Ideally, the government should be working toward sustainability, but that is not always the case.
That is why the second component is just as important, which is the citizens.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a chance to participate in our government, that participation is some of the most important work we can do in building a sustainable future.
By voting, protesting, lobbying, petitioning, and campaigning, we can pressure the government to implement sustainability solutions, which will have a much more widespread impact than personal sustainability lifestyle changes.
Ultimately, political sustainability refers to governments taking actions to comprehensively address sustainability as well as individuals pushing for governments to take those actions.
A government introducing legislation to ban environmentally harmful substances in cleaning products is an example of sustainability.
An individual who has banned environmentally harmful cleaning products in their own house is not an example of political sustainability, but that same individual voting for a candidate who wants to introduce legislation to ban environmentally harmful cleaning products is.
In the rest of this post, we’re going to look at why political action is much stronger than individual actions when addressing environmental and social sustainability.
Environmentalism is impossible without political sustainability.
Caring about our impact on the environment is becoming much less of a fringe movement as more people try to implement sustainability solutions in their lives.
There is a shift for individuals to be mindful about the footprint that they leave on the planet, which may involve swapping products for their eco-friendly alternatives, minimizing their product consumption, and reducing their use of resources like water, electricity, and fossil fuels.
While I will be the first to point out that individual changes and political action are not mutually exclusive, I would also argue that your actions won’t cause lasting change if none of those actions involve participating in your government.
Some of the goals of eco-friendly lifestyle shifts are to reduce greenhouse gases, address pollution, and protect endangered species and biodiversity, among others. One of the ultimate goals of environmentalism is to prevent the average global temperature from rising 2°C.
Those goals are best achieved through government action.
If we want to reduce greenhouse gases and pollution, we need the government to implement clean energy solutions.
While one individual could switch to solar power and an electric vehicle, that doesn’t mean much if the individual’s tax money means that the government is still subsidizing fossil fuels and the majority of other citizens stick to the default of depending on gasoline powered vehicles and electricity powered by coal or natural gas.
Clean energy solutions need to be implemented by the government for any real decrease in fossil fuels. Furthermore, governments need to stop spending more than half a trillion of our tax dollars on fossil fuel subsidies.
(Maybe governments can stop subsidizing fossil fuels and instead fund a just transition to clean energy? As much as some individuals can change their habits to reduce their personal footprint, there are still tons of workers who rely on the fossil fuel industry for income and can’t just quit in favor of a more sustainable job. The government could implement sustainable employment programs that will provide these workers with education or training so that they can shift to a more sustainable industry.)
If we want to protect endangered species and biodiversity, we need legislation that protects these habitats.
While one individual can avoid using a harmful ingredient such as palm oil, that doesn’t mean much if it is widely available in many products and most people don’t know about the impact of the ingredient.
Just as there are regulatory bodies that regulate ingredients that could cause direct harm to us, we need regulation of ingredients that cause direct harm to the environment, and in turn will eventually harm humans.
If we want to prevent the average global temperature from rising 2°, individual actions are not enough.
The sustainability movement is certainly growing, but our climate will surpass that 2° increase long before there are enough individuals making enough changes to impact the climate.
We need not just one country’s government, but many governments making actual policy changes to solve the climate crisis.
There are indeed such initiatives, like the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Accords, but those initiatives don’t work when major contributors to global emissions refuse to participate or if the participation is merely symbolic without solid goals and actionable plans to meet those targets.
Moving forward, we need the government to take sustainability seriously. However, environmentalism is just one issue that political sustainability needs to address.
Social justice is impossible without political sustainability.
Another topic that has had growing implications and a larger spotlight as time goes on is social justice.
Progress has certainly been made in many areas, but there is still an overwhelming amount of inequality in this world, and that inequality hurts all of us, regardless of your own social standing.
There are of course ways that we as individuals can push for equality on a personal level.
We can make sure to be kind and compassionate to others, we can donate to charities that support marginalized individuals and communities, we can learn about unconscious biases that we may hold, we can speak out when we see situations of injustice, and we can lead by example–modeling for our kids, friends, neighbors, employees, and other peers how to address differences with acceptance and understanding.
Indeed, I believe that all of the above traits are extremely important and align with many of the morals that most of us learned in our childhood, whether from our parents, our religion, our teachers, or kids shows and movies that always make sure to include a life lesson.
However, those actions are just the foundation to a healthy society, and political sustainability plays the most vital role in establishing social equality.
If we want gender equality, we need legislation that prevents gender discrimination.
While individuals can make sure to avoid gender discrimination, that means nothing if the government itself requires gender discrimination. For example, a man might insist that he has nothing against women driving cars, but if the government bans women from driving, then that individual man’s sentiment means nothing.
(There is a really interesting memoir called Daring to Drive, in which Manal al-Sharif fights for women in Saudi Arabia to gain the right to drive.)
Even if the government doesn’t explicitly require gender discrimination, it is harmful when governments don’t punish gender discrimination. A man could insist that he has nothing against hiring women, but that doesn’t mean anything if he isn’t the hiring manager and all of the managers refuse to hire women.
It is so important for the government to make sure that gender discrimination is not allowed to persist.
If we want racial equality, we need legislation that prevents racial discrimination.
While individuals can refuse to discriminate against others based on race, that means nothing if the government itself is racist.
Whether governments explicitly require racial discrimination (like laws that force different races to sit in different places on the bus or criminalizes interracial relationships), or implicitly allow racial discrimination by refusing to ban it through legislation, the outcome can be harmful for everybody.
The only real way to ensure widespread racial equality is through comprehensive legislation that guarantees equal rights and protection to all citizens regardless of race.
The same thing goes for other marginalized groups of people. One of the largest of these groups is people with disabilities.
Once again, if we care about people with disabilities, the most important thing we can do is ensure that the government provides legislation to prevent discrimination.
While you may believe in treating disabled people with dignity, your helpful attitude means nothing without widespread legislation so that all people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.
Helping one wheelchair-bound person up some steps is almost nothing compared to providing accessibility features such as ramps to all people with disabilities.
It is vital for the government to introduce policies to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities.
These are of course just a few examples. For every social issue that exists, there is much more potential for that issue to be addressed through political action than individuals’ actions.
At the end of the day, governments are supposed to be in place to protect our rights; therefore, human rights are granted by the government.
It is in our best interest to make sure that the government is actually doing its job in protecting our rights.
Environmentalism and social justice are definitely not the only reasons that we need political sustainability.
But they are two huge issues that many of us care about and need to act accordingly.
Individual action is still important, but we should make sure that at least some of those actions involve a political component.
For those of us who have the privilege of participating in politics, that is the very first action we should take in our efforts to become more sustainable.
Continuing the Conversation
Can you think of any other ways that politics are crucial to our wellbeing? Has this changed your opinion on the importance of politics in your personal life? What are your takeaways for how political sustainability impacts you? Let me know in the comments below!