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The swirling maelstrom of issues that our society confronts today is an fuzzy web of interrelated challenges that require more than ever systemic solutions. In my work and research, I encounter a variety of worldviews and value systems attempting to navigate the complexity of these issues. Unfortunately, the predominant emphasis lies on individual actions and personal consumer choices, rather than adopting a structural lens to comprehend these interwoven problems. Such an approach, while intuitively appealing, most of the time perpetuates and reinforces the status quo rather than disrupting it.

As I navigate through the maze of political thought, one thing never ceases to drive my interest: our collective struggle to grasp complexity. This “complexity blindness” isn’t exclusive to one political side; it’s something that affects us all, regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum. Both those who lean to the right and those who consider themselves leftists often grapple with this, even when their worldviews seem so different. Many of us, despite our various allegiances, end up boxed in by the same old framework: an internalized cocktail of individualism, conservatism and capitalism that has shaped history as we know it.

Significant limitations to such approaches result in the invisibilization of structural realities and the individualization of societal problems. I call this category of phenomena the “individualistic paralysis”. Individualistic paralysis and complexity blindness are nonetheless interrelated phenomena. In a reciprocating dynamic, they reinforce each other, thereby solidifying the conservative capitalist framework’s hold on society.

Also, in the face of our current era of futurbulences and wicked problems, these issues also resonate with sense-jamming, making it even more challenging to engage with people with deeply rigidified belief systems based on countless hours of artificial intelligence-driven and mobile-phone-based reinforcements of these paradigms.

To get to the heart of how we’re approaching the world’s most pressing problems, we need therefore to take a hard look at the values and viewpoints driving us. These aren’t just abstract ideas; they’re the engine behind our collective actions and decisions, hence profoundly influencing the trajectory of our societies and planet.

This post is the first in a series examining a few distinct yet interrelated perspectives on activism and change. These are well-intentioned attempts at change-making, for sure. But here’s the catch: instead of encouraging us to tackle the significant, complex, systemic problems, these perspectives often inadvertently shift our efforts away from engaging in political action. Instead, they perpetuate a superficial symptomatic engagement with the crises at hand, limiting our capacity for driving meaningful change.

The hummingbird theory and “I did my part.”

In the elaborate web of narratives that induce a state of individualistic paralysis, one recurrent theme consistently emerges – the idea of focusing on ‘doing one’s part’ best represented by the narrative of the hummingbird. This narrative serves as a useful illustration of the individualization of solutions and responsibility, which is deeply rooted in the tenets of neoliberalism.

The Hummingbird Theory (“Le Colibrisme” in French) advocates for individual actions, no matter how small, to make a significant change. Stemming from an indigenous fable, it characterizes the effort of a tiny hummingbird trying to extinguish a massive forest fire with a single drop of water at a time. It illustrates the power of individuals in initiating change, portraying every single action as a drop in the ocean with the potential to stir large ripples. However, there are critical drawbacks to this approach and mindset.

Indeed, the philosophy of ‘doing one’s part’ restricts individuals from undertaking the more systemic actions necessary for the level of change that individual efforts alone can provide. This philosophy serves as a powerful diversion that conveniently avoids challenging the structures of capitalism. The idea is that accumulating individual actions, often tightly restricted within consumer behavior, will miraculously result in substantial societal transformation is deeply misleading.

First, the Hummingbird perspective unintentionally overemphasizes individual action, shifting focus away from the systemic issues plaguing our societies. Using this lens, complex challenges like climate change, systemic racism, or poverty that require collective and systemic responses are dangerously oversimplified as issues that individual actions alone can address.

The scale-mismatch illusion

Second, the hummingbird parable may contribute to a “scale-mismatch illusion” phenomenon. This arises when the proposed solutions or actions must align with the scale and complexity of the problem. While the story champions individual effort and responsibility, it inadvertently diminishes the ability to make sense of the overwhelming scale and complexity of issues like climate change or systemic inequality.

These are not issues that individual actions can sufficiently address, however noble or well-intentioned. They require collective, coordinated and systemic efforts that engage with the interdependencies, feedback loops and non-linear dynamics characteristic of these problems. By focusing on individual actions, we are misled into thinking that these highly complex, systemic problems can be resolved through a simple, linear cause-and-effect approach. Thus, the scale-mismatch illusion trivializes our monumental challenges and may detract from the urgency of pursuing systemic and structural transformations

Responsibility displacement

The hummingbird narrative also leads to “responsibility displacement” or “accountability diffusion.” Focusing on individual actions engenders the notion that “I’ve done my part; the rest is up to others.” While individual efforts are crucial and admirable, they should not be mistaken as an adequate substitute for systemic change. This perception allows individuals to absolve themselves of the need for more profound, systemic changes. It fosters a perception that if the problems persist, others are not doing their part.

By giving disproportionate importance to individual effort relieves powerful entities like corporations and governments from their responsibilities. The actions of these entities play a significant role in shaping societal issues and can either mitigate or aggravate these problems. This narrative is the most convenient diversion for these entities, absolving them from their significant responsibilities.

The reality is that these key actors have a considerable influence on and, therefore, responsibility for societal and environmental outcomes. Regrettably, the hummingbird mindset is a powerfully efficient smoke screen, allowing corporations and their shareholders to avoid scrutiny. By aligning with this narrative, they can frame themselves as part of the solution, often through minimal sustainability efforts, while remaining largely unchallenged in their more damaging systemic practices. By pushing the ‘do your part’ narrative, they divert the spotlight away from themselves, conveniently avoiding being identified and engaged as crucial levers of systemic change.

Consumer activism

Understanding why this narrative of individualistic action is so pleasant for corporations trying to prevent deep systemic change is fundamental to unlocking the status quo. At the heart of the problem is how these organizations benefit from consumer activism. Consumer activism is an ideologically-driven powerful practice encouraging individuals to believe their purchasing decisions can bring systemic change. This idea, though well-intentioned, subtly strengthens the capitalist framework, positioning consumption as a form of activism and –again!– downplaying the systemic factors contributing to issues such as environmental destruction or social inequality.

The narrative of consumers as activists allows for the commodification of virtue signalling – an act where ethical behaviour becomes a product or status symbol, so prevalent in the age of social media. This behavior transforms ethics into a transactional activity, driving a competitive culture where one’s moral standing is tied to their consumption habits. This perpetuates the capitalist ideals of competition and status, trapping action into individualistic paralysis.

The depoliticization of systemic issues

Therefore, the ‘Hummingbird’ mindset contributes to the depoliticization of systemic issues. This happens when the narrative shifts responsibility for large-scale problems from the societal or governmental level to the individual. Recasting systemic issues as matters of personal choice reduces them from political issues requiring collective action to ones solved through personal consumer preference, obscuring the structural imbalances and power dynamics at play.

All too often, I’ve observed this pattern of individualistic paralysis –particularly well represented by the narrative of the hummingbird– especially amongst designers. This mindset keeps us skimming the surface of issues, inhibiting us from acknowledging the necessity for a more systemic approach to problems. Instead of being viewed as a catalyst for growth and improvement, criticism is misunderstood as an argument for inaction. This reaction is often based on the belief that structural change is too daunting, if not impossible. Trapped within the confines of consumerism and individualistic action and often constrained by the straight-jacket of neurocapitalism, designers struggle to envision alternative pathways to address our pressing issues.

Organized and coordinated action

Indeed, the Hummingbird narrative, though apparently inspirational, overlooks a critical aspect of profound change: the power of organized and coordinated action. Imagine a jazz ensemble where each musician contributes their individual mastery, but the magic truly unfolds in their improvisational exchange, their ability to listen and respond to one another. The beautiful, complex music emerges not from solo performances but from the ensemble’s collective, responsive harmony. Similarly, systemic change isn’t a solo act but a shared effort, demanding not just individual contributions but strategic alignment and reciprocal interaction. The Hummingbird narrative, by emphasizing individual contributions, overlooks this vital fact. It paints a picture where each bird, or individual, acts in isolation, doing their part without a comprehensive plan that guides their efforts towards a common goal.

Alternative narratives

In order to shift from the solo bird to a more collective and political action, here are four more systemic and nature-based metaphors to overcome the limitations of individualised activism:

  1. The Redwood forest: Just as in the Redwood forest where the strength of the entire system relies on interconnected roots, collective and structural action is key to societal change. Each tree (individual action) is important, but the power of the forest (systemic change) lies in its interconnected network of roots (collective action). This metaphor underlines the idea that our efforts should be intertwined and collaborative, supporting the greater structure rather than just focusing on individual actions.
  2. The river delta: Consider the formation of a river delta, which occurs when the river (society) meets the sea (desired change). It’s not one single stream of water (individual action) that creates a delta but a complex network of interconnected channels (collective and systemic action) that shapes the landscape (society). This metaphor underlines the idea that comprehensive change requires a system of actions flowing together rather than isolated individual efforts.
  3. The octopus: An octopus provides a beautiful metaphor for decentralization. Unlike many creatures, two-thirds of an octopus’s neurons are located in its arms, not its head. This unusual structure allows each arm to taste, touch, and move independently to solve problems and make decisions. Each segment or individual in a system can work autonomously, responding to local conditions and challenges while remaining connected to a larger, cohesive whole. This metaphor serves as a reminder that decentralized systems can be both flexible and unified, adaptable and coherent.
  4. The immortal jellyfish: The Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the immortal jellyfish, symbolizes incredible systemic regeneration and transformation. This small, transparent sea creature holds an extraordinary power: it can revert its cells back to their earliest form and grow anew, in effect resetting its life cycle and achieving biological immortality. This biological phenomenon serves as an allegory for the radical transformations we can aspire to in our societal systems. It invites us to dream and work towards a world where unjust, unsustainable systems are not just reformed but reshaped at their core, reborn into something better, just as the jellyfish is reborn into a new life cycle.

To conclude, the notion of ‘doing one’s part’ overshadows the deeper need for collective, coordinated action and systemic change. It also diverts responsibility away from corporations, delaying urgently needed action. The profound challenges of our era – climate change, social inequality, biodiversity loss – are systemic and so our responses should be as well. Narratives of small-scale, tribal solutions are insufficient against the vast, violent and global impacts of 21st Century capitalism.

Changing the system together

Our roles extend beyond personal consumption choices to advocating for and working towards systemic and organized change. We must pivot our narrative from ‘doing one’s part’ to ‘changing the system together’, promoting a coordinated effort for an equitable and sustainable society.