The rebels we need

I haven’t been writing much lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot. It’s the kind of thinking, though, that resists tidy little posts, my thoughts not a piece of yarn that unwinds neatly with a tug, but more like an elastic-band ball, ideas encircling and overlapping. A recurring theme is the systems and conventions that we can challenge or rebuild for the benefit of all. I’ve been thinking a lot about individualism too, about the great fallacy of it, and the ways in which it diminishes our lives and leads us to fail one another and our planet.

You may have heard about the Fortune 500 bigwigs of corporate advocacy group Business Roundtable releasing a statement that acknowledged that profits to shareholders can no longer be a corporation’s exclusive focus. Suddenly the well-being of employees, communities, and the environment are worthy of discussion at the boardroom table. They’ve realized, I guess, that there are no shareholder profits if the 99% comes for their heads, if the world is a fiery hellscape. They’ve realized that they’ve stripped the nutrients from the soil for too long, which is metaphorical in most cases, but also literal in some.

It’s easy to raise my eyebrows at these out-of-touch elites, but I’ve been trying to question individualism in my own life too. In the Western capitalist model, we’re taught to put ourselves first, or, at the very least, put our family units first. And while we’re biologically engineered to favour our kin, and to a certain point it’s useful, at what point are we hoarding resources as surely as a Fortune 500 fat cat? I was really roused by Adam Roberts’s piece in Vox (wonderfully rendered as a graphic column by Alex Citrin), which asks, how much money is too much? When does wealth become immoral? What does morality look like in a capitalist system? What obligation do we have to make society more secure for everyone?

So I’ve been trying to find ways to upend certain capitalist and individualist actions and assumptions in my own life. For instance, I discovered a friend has $2000 of charitable contribution matching at her work. Since I’ve committed to donating 10% of my income, I have a chunk of money to give, and could easily give some of it to her. I could double some of my impact! And of course this money, invested in the right programs, can have a positive ripple effect beyond the food or contraception or mosquito nets it buys. The drawback is that I lose that charitable tax credit — about $500 if I gave her $1500 — which I’ll admit, made me nervous, setting off scripts about “my” money and what I might “deserve.” But I’m learning to shut those down. Because life ain’t fair, and while I am frugal and financially responsible, it’s ludicrously deluded not to factor privilege and plain dumb luck into my own financial situation. Let’s face it, those factors count for much more than 10%.

If I give the money to my friend, I can give twice as much money to organizations I believe in, and also I can give some money to her as a tax credit. Her family had a run of terrible luck a while ago, and I love her dearly. If I’m for expanding models of family and kinship, why wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to benefit? Also, I don’t desperately need that money. If invested, it might give me more security down the road, but if I’m honest, in the decades to come, I should inherit some money too. In the meantime, I could save someone’s life. There are people looking out for me, who am I looking out for?

On a smaller scale, a friend of a friend recently gifted me her old patio furniture. It’s a huge upgrade from the rundown street findings currently in my yard, and means new stuff without consuming new resources — a great treat. I offered to pay her for them, but she declined, and my friend suggested I make a donation to Amazon protection instead. Another win and a net positive for the system. I needed to get the furniture to my house, though. I could have rented some sort of truck, but a friend’s husband has a pickup truck, and I was able to enlist his help in relocating my new patio set. My first thought was to buy him a nice bottle of something, but then I realized I had something more valuable to offer: my babysitting services. My friend happily agreed, and it reminded me that this is something I should offer more often. No money needed to change hands, nothing new needed to be purchased, and we generated some social capital and rainforest protection.

For now, we’re largely stuck with capitalism, but individualism can be undermined more easily. These small acts of resistance give us power, and we can be the rebels we need. We don’t have to wait for the Business Roundtable to start looking above the bottom line to make this world better. Yes, we need to vote, write letters, protest, and publicly advocate for systemic change, but the system lives in us too, in our homes and hearts, and there a brave new world is entirely possible.