How to Make Real Change Happen

There's more than one path to a better future.

Posted Mar 27, 2019

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

I read the following quote from Senator Bernie Sanders in the January 2018 issue of The Sun magazine:

“Real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up. It takes place when ordinary people, by the millions, are prepared to stand up and fight for justice. That’s what the history of the trade-union movement is about. That’s what the history of the women’s movement is about. That’s what the history of the gay-rights movement is about. That’s what the history of the environmental movement is about. That’s what any serious movement for justice is about.”

My response was, “Yes, and…”

Real change happens in many ways, not just one.

Sometimes change is, indeed, primarily bottom-up – as in the women’s suffrage and labor movements.

Sometimes it’s primarily top-down – as in the ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which occurred when scientists discovered that CFCs were creating a hole in the ozone layer, and diplomats adopted the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs.

Sometimes change comes through new technologies and innovations.

Seth Goldman, co-founder of the fair trade company Honest Tea (later sold to Coca Cola), writes in Inc. about how Henry Ford did more to end the plight of abused horses (by replacing them with cars) than did Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, through all his animal protection efforts.

Now, in the 21st century, to protect the environment we need a replacement for fossil-fuel-based automobiles, and, perhaps surprisingly, Ford Motor Company is engaged with this effort.

As someone who’s been involved in the animal protection movement for over 30 years, and who’s been urging people to make humane food choices, I’m aware that the collective work of many millions of us striving to protect nonhuman animals through bottom-up activism may not have nearly the impact on ending animal suffering as will the small number of entrepreneurs developing clean meat and plant-based meat, which have the potential to end the abuse and slaughter of billions of factory farmed animals; the brutal deaths of a trillion sea animals; and millions of food poisonings each year.

Certainly, bottom-up environmental activists have helped pass legislation to protect air and water, but the biggest breakthroughs to reverse the rate of global warming are likely to come from a relatively small number of clean energy entrepreneurs and social businesses making it possible to build thriving green economies.

I write all this as someone who will continue to educate about and advocate for environmental, animal, and human rights protections and policies.

But I won’t be suggesting that there’s only one approach to creating real change.

Each of us needs to identify the particular ways in which we want to become solutionaries who utilize our talents, skills, and knowledge to make real change happen.

Some of us will become traditional bottom-up activists agitating for change. Some will set new precedents within the legal system that have powerful top-down effects. Some will influence from the middle by developing new technologies that lead to transformed systems.

I’m disinclined to accept either/or statements like “real change never takes place” or “always takes place” through certain means.

Social change is more likely to occur through a combination of bottom-up activism, social businesses, and top-down policy measures from experts and those in positions of power. This means that forming coalitions and collaborating across various sectors of society can speed the process.

We mustn’t forget that real and significant societal changes happen all the time, and not necessarily for the better.

They often happen through the impacts of unexamined societal systems that have become entrenched over time.

As an example: how did obesity and Type 2 diabetes become epidemic in the U.S. over the past several decades, disproportionately affecting people living in poverty? To simplify: A combination of industrial agriculture, the Farm Bill, industry lobbyists, advertising executives, and taxpayer subsidies that have made processed and fast food bizarrely low in price, have helped contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Hardly a bottom-up change in our society.

How will obesity and type 2 diabetes be solved? Likely through a combination of top-down, bottom-up, market-driven, legislation-determined, education-influenced, and system-transforming factors.

Each of us has a role to play in being solutionaries who make real change happen.

What will your role be?