Individuals and social pressure: how to change the world

Guillermo Fernandez on the Bern Bundesplatz, surrounded by a candlelight vigil of his supporters.
  1. Individuals are everything;
  2. Institutions are, alone, are nothing;
  3. Social pressure works;
  4. Urgency begets creativity (and effectiveness);
  5. A culture of love wins the day;
  6. We only understand what systems are made of when we try to transform them.

Meet the activator: Guillermo Fernandez

Guillermo Fernandez is both extraordinary and ordinary. He is a Swiss IT project manager and father of three. He doesn’t belong to any party or activist group. But he did something extraordinary: he sat down on August 9th 2021 and read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which had been published the day before. But he didn’t just read: he allowed himself to feel and imagine what the projections in that report meant for his children. That day turned his life upside down, and he decided he needed to act. He decided to go on unlimited hunger strike for climate on November 1st, the first day of the COP26 conference on climate. His demands were modest, but also unprecedented, not just in Switzerland, but perhaps in the world: to have climate & biodiversity scientists meet with the entire Parliament, in an extraordinary session, to be informed about the full extent of the climate & ecological crises. And, after 39 gruelling days without food, in the cold and harsh conditions on the Bundesplatz in front of the Swiss Parliament in Bern, Guillermo won.

First insight: individuals are everything

Individuals make change happen.

This was the biggest shock to me, and also the fact I need you to grasp the most strongly, because it holds so much promise. Individuals, starting with Guillermo, obviously, made change happen. And one reason it worked was because Guillermo, as an individual person, appealed to us as individual humans. Faced with his action and his challenge, each of us was compelled to make a choice: step up, or look away. Many people chose to look away, but a few, just enough, chose to step up and join his struggle. Guillermo called this the theory of dominoes: one domino can cause a few others to fall over, but each of these can act on others, and so on until the whole area around has been forever transformed.

Second insight: institutions, alone, are nothing

This is the corollary to the first insight, and it came as a bit of a shock, quite honestly. On the ‘left’, broadly speaking, we tend to put a lot of faith in social structures, organising and organisations, and much less in individuals. This experience flipped that understanding on its head for me.

Third insight: social pressure works

A hunger strike is obviously the ultimate act of social pressure. That’s how it works. Witnessing someone literally dying of hunger in public, for a cause, is unbearable social pressure. It worked on me, and on many others: it became hard to sleep, hard to do anything but think about how, somehow, I could help Guillermo win, so he could live and go back to his family.

Fourth insight: urgency begets creativity (and effectiveness)

We all know we are in races against time for the complete transformation of our societies away from trajectories of increasing harm and danger, but, for the most part, we have obligations and habits in our day-to-day lives which, alongside a culture of denial and delay, help us push that urgency to another day. Guillermo’s action of hunger strike made the urgency extremely personal (see first insight on individual action) and extremely real. It forced all of us who wanted to help him win to get off our routines, and get change done in the here and now. It was disruptive and caused us to become extremely creative and effective.

Fifth insight: a culture of love wins the day

This one is difficult for me, because I am a (recovering?) rage and negativity monster. But Guillermo is very different, and we can learn from each other. Practically the first thing he told me, when I went to Bern to sit with him for a couple of hours early on in his hunger strike, was “My greatest character fault is my jolly disposition.” And I came to learn this was quite close to the truth.

Sixth insight: we only understand what systems are made of when we try to transform them

This point is a bit more theoretical, and combines my experience and the writings of the pioneering systems theorist Dana Meadows especially. If you haven’t yet read “Leverage Points: places to intervene in a system,” do yourself a favour and go read it now. In this piece, Dana explains that different types of intervention have more or less potential to change systems, with some intervention points being more shallow (for example changing single parameters within systems), and others much more powerful (for example changing system structures or goals and operating paradigms).

Leverage points to intervene in/on a system as per Donella Meadows, representation by Leuphana.
  • We are taught that social progress against injustice is the normal arc of enlightened history: all it takes is for someone to point out the injustice, then the powers that be, supported by concerned citizens, make the system become more just. This is the liberal “information and awareness-raising” theory of change. Sometimes, it’s even known as “speaking truth to power.” According to this false fairytale, information of shocking or unjust facts is enough, somehow, to percolate through society, create awareness, mobilise concerned citizens, and shame those in power into acting. Of course, this is not the case. Information and awareness are crucial, but even more important is action: acting to mobilise, organise, campaign, be relentless forces to transform the system away from injustice. Just highlighting injustice on its own has never cut the mustard.
  • Another fairytale is economic in nature: that the market delivers what we desire, and is the source of our well-being. This fairytale has been comprehensively debunked by scholars like Tim Jackson, Kate Raworth, Jason Hickel and many others, so I won’t rehash the arguments here. But I do want to explain how paralysing this fairytale is in terms of transforming our economies. It stops us from acting, because the belief that we create the market via our consumer desires means that we see ourselves as culpable, like in a distorted funfair mirror. It leads people to build campaigns around “voting with our dollars,” rather than target the large megacorps designing both production and consumption.

Some links with more insights & food for thought

Please leave other suggestions in replies?

Some Ideas on science & activism for Scientist Rebellion Switzerland

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Julia Steinberger

Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American-UK ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.