Big rivers emerge from small springs. They spring forth in remote hills. Big ideas to change the world are also born on the edge. Great movements to transform societies do not start from the centre: they start in small places and incubate in some unknown sections of society.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a bus. That led to a bus boycott, which inspired a small-town priest, Martin Luther King, and thousands of others at the grassroots level, eventually becoming a great movement to end racial injustice in America.
Parks and King did not come from the White House. They came from the fringe. Yet the racial justice movement finally shook the centre of government and mainstream society, and now images of Parks and King adorn the White House.
Whether it be Emmeline Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi, Rachel Carson, Nelson Mandela, Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, all social reformers start their journey of transformation from the fringes. Then their ideals and values, their science and innovation gain popularity and there is greater awareness at the grassroots level.
Once the new vision and values obtain large support among people, governments start to listen. They see not only the merit in these ideals and values, but also the votes in them, and therefore they embrace these ideals. Thus, pragmatism meets with idealism, and a legislative framework is put in place to satisfy popular demand.
Once governments come on board, industry and commerce see new business opportunities and benefits of change, and they begin to invest in products and services that meet the expectations of governments and gain the support of ordinary citizens.
Thus ecological, social or political transformation is a combination of the vision of radical idealists anti activists, the legal framework provided by a pragmatic government, and implementation by the business community.
Take the example of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, which cause climate catastrophe. In 1973, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) was established in the remote hills of Wales. At that time, not one wind turbine or solar panel was producing renewable energy anywhere in the UK. The founders, who began to experiment with wind power and solar power, were considered either crazy or impractical idealists.
No one in government or in the business world or, least of all, in the oil industry believed that one day wind and solar power would be a real resource to meet the nation’s energy needs. But gradually hundreds of thousands of people began to visit CAT. It became a destination for eco-tourism and even for eco-pilgrimage.
A strong grassroots movement began to emerge in support of renewable power. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and scores of other environmental NGOs endorsed the project of CAT. They promoted and strengthened the people’s movement for renewable energy. Only then came government subsidies, and finally businesses started to invest in companies like Solar Century, Good Energy and Ecotricity.
Even big mainstream electricity suppliers started to embrace the change. Gradually millions of solar panels and wind turbines spread across the UK. It became an energy revolution! By 2020, more than a quarter of energy consumed in the UK was supplied from wind and solar sources.
The development and spread of renewable energy within the last four decades show that in order to bring a successful social transformation idealistic NGOs, pragmatic governments and realistic businesses need to collaborate and work together. While doing so, NGOs need to stay ahead and maintain their radicalism and remind politicians and entrepreneurs that ethical, ecological and social values must always be the guiding principles behind their actions. Political or commercial considerations should always remain subservient to the ideal of planetary wellbeing.
The planet is in the process of continuous evolution – physical evolution as well as an evolution in consciousness. There will always be a need for a new Gandhi, a new Greta, a new Mandela and a new Malala as a part of the evolutionary process. At first, they will be ridiculed and dismissed or even persecuted, and eventually they will be accepted and followed. Even if their radicalism will sometimes be forgotten, their subtle influence will endure.
Activists and idealists often ask how they can persuade politicians and inspire entrepreneurs to accept ethical and ecological values. The answer is to act out of the courage of conviction and with great patience and deep commitment but without any expectation of an immediate outcome.
With this consciousness we need to do three things:
First and foremost, be the change that you wish to see in the world. Words and thoughts gain power only from practice. One example is stronger than a thousand words. As a radiator radiates warmth, we have to radiate change. The pioneers of CAT set a shining example that attracted attention from all corners of the country. This is the first step: be the change.
The second step is to communicate the change. All great idealists and activists have also been great communicators. There are many ways to communicate. Pablo Picasso communicated his ideals of peace through painting. His heart-wrenching image of Guernica touched and moved millions of people around the world.
Rachel Carson communicated by writing a marvellous book, Silent Spring, which laid the foundation for the environmental movement. Monty Don communicates by being an exemplary gardener. Martin Luther King communicated through his rousing speech ‘I have a dream’. All of us, the activists, need to develop skills of communication to bring about change in the world.
And the third step is to organise the change. Start an organisation to present and promote your vision and ideals. Eve Balfour started the Soil Association. Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day. Jane Goodall started Roots & Shoots. Dorothy Stowe started Greenpeace.
Similarly, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and thousands of other organisations were started by radical dreamers who wanted to change the world, and they have. We can start an organisation or we can join an organisation. Join Extinction Rebellion, join Fridays For Future or any other organisation that speaks to your heart.
These, then, are the three steps: Be the Change, Communicate the Change and Organise the Change. Then we will be able to inspire governments and businesses to join the change!