There are many things we need to do to move towards a sustainable culture. Sustainability is a reasonable initial goal given where we are starting from, but we then need to go beyond that to once again be a productive part of the ecosystem, something that benefits life on earth rather than diminishes it.
I don't know how to make someone else want to take those steps, to care more about the wider world community of plants and animals, human and nonhuman. Why one person cares about all life, another cares only about their social group, and another cares only about their own ego, is still largely a mystery. What I think we do know is the general direction which leads us out of our myopic abyss.
Here are my thoughts on the personal change we as individuals need to make. Hopefully, for some, this might speed their journey.
Realise your power as an individual
Most people I meet realise that the world could be a better place. Why people do not make positive changes in their lives that would address that is a complicated issue, but I would like to speak on one aspect I think is important - our perceived powerlessness.
It is true you are an individual amidst a vast multitude, but then so is everybody else. There are some who have great power, but this is generally through the control of other individuals, it is still in individuals that the basis of all power lies. Therefore fostering independence of spirit in ourselves and others is a defence against the concentration of power, and joining together with like-minded individuals is the best way we can resist groups of power once they are formed.
Looking at the hierarchy of our society, we can feel powerless before what seems to be a monolithic social order, however, in moments of change history reveals to us an often fluid and dynamic structure that can move quickly in unexpected ways. It is often the case that society teeters on the brink of change, unbeknownst to even those who most wish for it, waiting for a catalyst, which is often just the example that other people also want the same change and that change is possible. Soon the world looks different, people become accustomed to the new normal and cannot imagine it was ever different.
However much we are taught in our history lessons that money, force and wealth rule our world when we stand back and look at the broader scope of history many of the people who have really changed the thinking of our civilisation in enduring ways have been individuals and groups of people who have come from humble places. Sometimes persecuted outcasts in their own time, their once impossibly radical ideas have eventually come to be seen by the culture that shunned them as self-evident. The power of ideas like democracy, equality, justice, are ideas people are still persecuted for having in some parts of the world. The once radical, unthinkable idea that each of us should have an equal say in how we are governed has repeatedly proved more forceful than powerful interests who have tried to suppress it. This teaches us that we shouldn't mistake the status quo for an inevitability.
The way an individual can make a significant change in the world is by connecting with others who share their general vision. Those we might call "great" individuals in our past who have made a positive change represent a shared ideal that is rarely purely sourced from them alone, they merely become the embodiment of that idea. It is the movements of many individuals which support figureheads and lift them up to greatness, when perhaps for generations equal souls had laboured in historical darkness to lay the groundwork required to arrive at the point of mass societal change. The tides of history are deep and are rarely controlled or resisted by any single person. The power to make change rests with the many, individuals who in their schools, workplaces, families, social groups, do the unacclaimed work, creating the ideological space for a progressive idea to be accepted. History forgets the many who struggle in obscurity, but they are its foundation.
We are changing the world with our every action, good or bad, they ripple out into the world in ways we cannot always easily perceive. Believing we are powerless may be a convenient way to avoid the responsibility inherent in the example we set in our lives. We know that perhaps the most powerful driver of individual behaviour is the influence others have on how an individual interprets the world. As we obediently walk through lives that we didn't choose, we are making it that much harder for others to resist doing the same. By being the change we want to see in the world, we open peoples minds to another possibility for themselves.
We all have enormous latent potential for good within us, that our world is crying out for, and by realising that which is within us we can heal the world, and perhaps even ourselves.
Educate yourself on the state of the environment
I believe that the reason many people aren't making significant changes in the way they live for environmental reasons is not that they are apathetic and selfish, but because they don't understand what is actually going on. The reasons they don't know what is going on are complicated, involving personal psychology and the structure of power as it is expressed through media and politics, but it is possible through personal effort to find out the underlying truth.
You can't wait for someone else to tell you what is going on. It's too vast and complex to explain in detail in a conversation, or in the 10 second sound bites of what passes for news coverage in our media. As a citizen of the world, as a token of your sincerity that you care about the world, you should take the time to understand what we have wrought in this ecosystem. You should know enough to be able to make a judgement on whether the way you live your life is morally justifiable, and how destructive you and your community's lifestyle is to the ecosystem which supports all life.
This is best pursued as a personal philosophical journey. Once you find out for instance that we have pushed the gentle orangutans, the "people of the forest" to the edge of extinction in the wild, you will still need to answer for yourself if that really matters. Perhaps people are all that has any meaning in the ecosystem, or perhaps the way we act is a crime against meaning, compassion, beauty, the mysteries of life itself. When someone asks why we act in a way different to them, they deserve a thought-through response, one that will hopefully deepen their understanding of, and connection to their own life as an expression of all life.
There are so many issues which need to be understood, species extinction, species decline, the felling of the forests, the destruction of the ocean, pollution, climate change, the expansion of the deserts, toxic chemicals, invasive species, soil degradation, poaching, global dimming, overfishing, and all the other ways in which we are causing the decline of the living systems of Earth. I don't think you will really get any of it though until you make a conscious decision to ask your own questions and look for the answers to these sometimes complicated, many-sided issues.
So where to begin? There are many excellent documentaries and books on the subject. In respect to books I think it is important to read those which detail the environmental history of our world, and particularly humanities interactions with it down through history, the story of how empires have risen and fallen due to their interactions with the environment, particularly the soil. As for documentaries, there are some excellent summaries of the environmental problems we face, many which you will find for free and can be great stepping off points for further learning. I also think it is important to consult dissenting opinions on most things, often they make good points worthy of consideration and at the very least you should be aware of how arguments you may need to deal with in conversation are being framed by your opponents.
It is also necessary to have a basic understanding of how scientists establish whether the claims people make about the world are true. Anyone can produce a study claiming something, but the process whereby scientists challenge and verify individual ideas is important to understand so that you can differentiate between reasonable claims and those which have been disproven or are not yet proven. Most ideas at some point don't have good scientific backing, and we shouldn't let that limit our thinking, science doesn't have all the answers, or even most of the answers, but we should be aware of how verifiable a given piece of information is before we base too many other assumptions on it.
Finally, there are groups, meetups, talks, speakers, songs, stories, ask your own questions, answer them in a way that makes the most sense to you. I hope you will arrive at a point where you realise that change is necessary, and then follow that with informed action.
Change your thinking
How is it we became the person we are? Out of the limitless ways of being how did we decide on the way we currently live as being the one we would pursue? These are deep questions, and they have a direct bearing on our interaction with our environment.
The destruction of our world is not happening because large numbers of people have committed themselves to some sort of war against the ecosystem. Rather it is happening because many have been psychologically dissociated from the natural world. They have "chosen" highly consumptive lifestyles, following fads and fashions in a competitive hierarchical social world, which has virtually no evidence to show makes them any happier. It would perhaps be fine for people to live unhappy lives, surrounded by mediocre goods they tire of almost as soon as they purchase them and then discard, if it were not causing the decline of every living system on our planet.
Freud said the basis of human psychology was the sex drive and status, now regardless of what modern psychology thinks of Freud generally, these are obviously key drivers in most of us. We can map these drives onto the hierarchy of social groups, so evident in the communities of our fellow creatures, and in doing so begin to understand how seemingly irrational behaviour starts to make sense.
Fashion is an excellent example of this irrationality. We can look back and laugh at the way previous generations chose to dress, yet it is interesting that often the subjects of most ridicule looking back from our time, would have been considered the most fashionable people of their day. If fashion related to some consistent aesthetic of beauty we wouldn't expect to see such dramatic variations between generations and cultures. What this tells us is that the underlying truths are more related to social hierarchy than they are to the output of the latest trendy fashion designer. If people with status in the social hierarchy all started wearing purple hats tomorrow, it would probably soon filter down to the rest of the culture trying to establish their own place in the hierarchy of esteem and desirability by conforming to what they see as those with higher status than them doing. Then the original purple hatted people would need to move onto some different and more exclusive version to once again separate themselves from the rest of the herd and the cycle would continue. The particular fashion in question is of course somewhat arbitrary, it is what it says about us to other people that decides whether we choose to wear it. Showing an ankle can mean a woman is a temptress or nothing at all, it is not in the ankle that good or evil lies, but in the mind.
This is important because it relates to our consumption, through which we most affect the world. Much of our consumption is reasonable, though it can and should be made more environmentally sustainable if not enriching, people do need to eat, shelter and have some comforts in life. The consumption that is destroying the world is just as much related to passing fashions and attempts to elevate ourselves in the social hierarchy as it is to necessities. As what elevates us in the social hierarchy is somewhat arbitrary, we could just as easily look down upon those who take far more of the Earth's resources than they need, than treat them as successful, and the hierarchy would motivate people to act in very different ways. We could question why someone always needs to have the latest of some product, and see it as an obvious grasping for social status, an attempt to appear superior to other people when perhaps their own personal qualities or the way they conduct themselves in the world would fail to do so.
When we look at some new consumer good, do we see a shiny miracle of the modern technology that improves our lives, or a machine laden with toxic chemicals, often manufactured in questionable conditions, destined to be thrown away in a short time and disperse its chemicals into the environment whilst the next, scarcely different product that you've sold part of your life to earn makes its way to your home. I would say we need to look at it from both points of view, but there is a massive marketing machine, and a selfish tendency to be most focused on your own interests, that work together to blind you from more thoughtful considerations.
We need to start looking at the consequences of our lives in a deeper way, and part of this is resisting the manipulation of advertising that's purpose is to keep us consuming and damn the consequences. We need to change our thinking, about what we think a successful, attractive person is and what a good society is, we need to be a part of changing the mindset of our culture.
In the last fifty years of the twentieth century, already wealthy societies doubled the average material wealth of their citizens, yet studies on happiness show no improvement. If we seek happiness, it seems we wasted half a century destroying the world at a more rapid rate for little gain. The question then has to be asked, what if we had instead spent that time pursuing another vision of happiness, one of social connections, environmental integration, personal development, equality and service to our fellow creatures, where might we be now. Perhaps with a healthier world, and happier people, we will never know but let us not continue to waste more decades of human effort on a way of thinking which we know doesn't work.
Change your life
So I'll make the safe assumption that you've followed all the advice above. You've realised you are a consequential individual who can participate in great changes, you've educated yourself about what is going on, and you've changed your thinking to a new paradigm, well done. All these things are powerful and necessary, but if they remain only intellectual ideas, no matter how strongly you hold them if you don't model them for others, if you continue to live a consumptive lifestyle only with a more enlightened attitude, then the effects of your lifestyle will be little different to what they may have been before.
Almost every act you do, especially those involving consumption and the monetary system, ripples out into the world, and votes for a certain sort of world. It is difficult to know where to start when everything is consequential, but that is why you spent so much time understanding our effects on the world, and the problems we are causing. It's up to you to choose where to focus your energies, as an expression of your unique self and understanding of the world.
Of course, I can discuss what seems like a reasonable path, which you can take or leave as you wish. Look at your life and where you are impacting on the environment. Food, energy, transport, consumption, recreational pursuits, holidays, whatever is part of your individual footprint. Look at how you can dramatically reduce your environmental impacts through being creative and looking at how other people have tackled the same problems. See it as an opportunity to live your life true to your higher ideals.
I believe in personal change first, followed by an engagement with the wider world. I can accept arguments against this, but I believe you cannot expect of others what you do not do yourself. Focusing on the wider world is of course where we can make much more dramatic changes, we can reduce our environmental footprint to less than zero, by inspiring, enabling and encouraging other people to reduce their environmental footprint. The ways we can influence others include personal example, involvement in the flow of ideas in our society, and expressing our ideas through the political system, I'd encourage you to utilise all of these.
It is interesting that Freud thought integrating the individual with society was one of the primary goals of the psychologist, however as many have asked since, what if that society itself is often the cause of an individuals discontent, and that discontent is justified. Conformity in many cases is precisely the wrong thing to do both spiritually and morally, I think much that is bad in our world has happened through mindless conformity. Individuality is perhaps a better rule of thumb, but even that in itself is no absolute truth, mindless individuality is often just attention-seeking, and robs us of the power of cohesive action. We need to find a new balance between the two, we need to both allow more freedom to be individuals and pursue our own personal potential, whilst building a more connected, social, quite frankly loving society, pursuing a better vision of our shared future than ever-increasing economic growth through unsustainable consumption.
Many people are making these changes, connect with them, let us all together create the new normal. To me, it is nothing less than the next evolutionary step of our species in which our ideas of what is possible will reach out to places we cannot now imagine.