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Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action'
An exchange on How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action

Debbie Kasper

The premise that “a systemic social force is needed to drive a systemic planetary shift” and the questions of “what shape might such a force take and how can we best nurture it?” are indeed what drive my work―teaching, writing, planning, and engaging with my community.

There is so much to say (to second, to reiterate, to clarify, to synthesize), and yet, time constraints demand brevity. So with the understanding that there are many and diverse needs for action at multiple levels and scales, I offer ONE such possible (and possibly pie-in-the-sky) place to start—or more accurately, to continue, albeit with renewed enthusiasm, a more coherent vision, and greater coordination.

I am ever grateful for others’ specialized knowledge that has shaped my thinking, but my mind tends toward synthesis and big picture views. This way of thinking consistently leads me to conclude that one necessary entry point is changing how people think. Among many other implications, one I am presently persuaded by is the need for a new cultural narrative. George Monbiot’s latest work deals with this theme; in it, he points out the two prevailing stories (social democracy vs. neoliberalism) and suggests humanity’s cooperative nature and astonishing capacity for altruism as the basis of a different option. He calls it the “Politics of Belonging” (to me that seems right, in that we need to clarify and affirm our belonging to the planet and web of life, to the network of humanity, to particular communities, etc.). I would argue that, in addition to whatever else has to happen or does happen at the scale of global politics, developing understanding and skills around how to build and live in resilient communities is a non-negotiable necessity. Given climate change, our tumultuous politics, and the widespread alienation-anxiety-depression of individuals in our society, it will be essential regardless of what international political and economic maneuvers we might happen to pull off, and it can directly and indirectly serve GTI goals at multiple levels.

To meet Paul Raskin’s original demand for ideas of possible initiatives to catalyze such a movement, I’ve put together a rough sketch of a plan to engage others, seed new ways of thinking about our situation, and grow involvement in an ongoing fashion through a set of diverse opportunities at multiple levels.

In short, it involves:

  • A story
  • An awakening
  • Inspiring motives
  • Paths of action
  • A strong and diverse presence
  • Clever packaging in a variety of ways

Here is a slightly elaborated vision:

1. Develop an engaging alternative narrative with which people can make sense of things differently. Following Monbiot’s criteria, it must be simple and intelligible, have broad appeal, cross traditional political lines, resonate with deep human needs and desires, explain the mess we are in and the means by which we might escape it, and be firmly grounded in reality.

2. That narrative must be presented in a variety of forms—including a short and sweet condensed version—and be accompanied by a series of premises on which to build an increasingly advanced and accurate understanding of the how the planet works, humans’ place in it, basic human nature, the historical moves that got us here, what to expect if we continue down this path, options for choosing differently, what direction we should be collectively moving in, and actionable ways people working in different roles and at different scales can do that.

3. The above should provide a clear vision and inspiring motives for doing this rather than that, and should motivate people to act, in some way.

4. Over time, create multiple means of engagement, education, and involvement. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  1. Create a course (or longer curriculum) aimed at students that can be embedded in colleges and universities.
  2. Create comparable versions of this curriculum in the form of professional development opportunities tailored to business leaders, politicians, community and religious leaders, journalists, etc.
  3. Once the course/s are developed and piloted, host regular teach-the-teacher workshops, so that professors and others delivering them can learn how to teach them by experiencing the course/s and optimal teaching methods being modeled.
  4. Develop a full on-site in-person version, an online version, and offer smaller pieces a la carte for those interested.
  5. Develop accompanying bite-sized materials that can go viral and serve as gateways through which people new to all this can learn more.
  6. Eventually develop spinoff material geared toward the specific interests and needs that become apparent and emerge (in communities, in businesses, in religious orgs, etc.).
  7. Use existing networks and likeminded organizations to share and help spread the word (e.g., sustainability in higher ed orgs, even college accrediting bodies—perhaps,, GTI, Post Carbon Institute, SCORAI, Culture2Inc, Center for Humans and Nature, Templeton Foundation, etc.).

To accomplish this, we would need (1) a sense of what can be done in what timeframe, and a timeline of action to keep us focused and hold us accountable, (2) a sense of how many would initially be able and willing to participate (both in terms of creators and number of opportunities among colleges/universities and their professors and programs, just for a start), and (3) a way to fund somebody or a group of somebodies to get started on the first steps.

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Debbie Kasper
Debbie Kasper is a sociologist and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Hiram College, Ohio, where she directs the Sustainability, Environment, and Engaged Design Scholars Program. Her recent work involves the development of an integrated sociological framework for socio-environmental studies. Currently, she is exploring the potential applications of this framework for teaching, research, and action.

Cite as Debbie Kasper, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action,'" Great Transition Initiative (December 2017),

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As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

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The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization

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