Many idealists have the mistaken belief that once they introduce their new ideas to the public, they will be met with a rush of overwhelming and uncritical acceptance. People will flock towards their change, and they will be greeted as revolutionaries heralding a new golden era. The reality usually hits like a ton of bricks that the public can often respond with indifference and at times hostility to ideas that threaten their comfort zone. So entrenched they may be in the status quo, that your calls towards something new fall on deaf ears.
This is normally a moment of truth and reflection. Idealists can become dispirited by such a reception and retreat. Or they can buckle down for a longer journey of grassroots activism towards changing the system.
System change is never easy. This is because most systems, no matter how inefficient or wasteful, function on a sort of internal logic. For the system to change, that logic has to be shown to be fundamentally flawed while at the same time viable alternatives have to present. Even then, the forces of status quo in the system will work tirelessly to keep things remaining as they are.
So how should we approach building a movement of change? One compelling reasoning offered by both permaculture and social science is rather than changing the minds of the majority of the public, focus our efforts on convincing a minority instead.
10% is Enough
The father of permaculture science, Bill Mollison, once made the observation that the greatest change needed on a civilizational scale is for consumers to switch to becoming producers. In other words, rather than have the vast majority of society focused on consumption of resources, a certain percentage spend their time on small scale and urban agricultural systems which produce not just for their own families but for their communities as well. In his words, “If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
Mollison’s idea is concentrating on a minority of dedicated ones who can deliver the change needed for the rest of the system, rather than take a revolutionary appeal that calls for mass systemic change all at once. In permaculture, we also have the concept of ‘invisible structures’ which are the human systems of communal, legal and political exchange and interaction in which ecological change can be precipitated. The emphasis is to lead through action rather than words, and focus on building grassroots solutions that can outstrip conventional methods over time.
A dedicated minority
The idea of leveraging on a minority rather than a majority for a system changes also has certain parallels in social psychology. Psychologist Serge Moscovici in the 1970s was the first to observe the phenomenon of how a concentrated minority can eventually lead to a change in beliefs and behaviors of the rest of a population over time.
Moscovici argued that a minority that exhibits a strong and consistent commitment to core beliefs over a period will inevitably affect the views of the majority. After a certain period of marginalization of the minority perspective, the majority will not only be affected by their arguments but also by the contrast of doubts and uncertainty in certain mainstream views versus the clarity of the minority opinion.
A minority as small as 10% can over the stretch of years or decades change the dominant discourse through persistent application and adherence to core principles.
All or Nothing?
The takeaway of these findings is that largescale change begins on a more granular level. Moving from a petrochemical-based waste inefficient system such as our modern urban area into a more resource and ecologically sound one is not going to happen overnight. It requires a certain portion of the public who are forward-thinking, eco-conscious and proactive to begin to implement certain practices of sustainability, such as urban farming in their backyard or waste management of their kitchen scraps, in a consistent fashion.
The focus of activists in this area then should be activating those few who are aware of the problem and sufficiently motivated into regular behaviors rather than spending all the time to convert the uninitiated. Once a core of the public is energized, there will be a tipping point that will also force the hand of policymakers in the future in a positive direction.