“If we want to transform society in an ecological way, we must transform ourselves profoundly first.”

Petra Kelly co-founder, German Green Party, in an address at the Morelia Ecology Conference in Mexico, 1991


During her time as a Green politician and ecofeminist activist, Petra Kelly called upon governments for political leadership in the protection of human rights and the planet and an end to the exploitation of peoples. Addressing multinational corporations, she denounced profit-seeking actions that corrupted governments, exploited the poor and devastated the environment. Speaking to the mass media, she appealed for more courageous reporting that drove greater responsiveness to human and ecological needs.

But Petra also spoke to people:

“We need to restructure and we need to overhaul the entire social fabric,” she said, calling for a new global society built on solidarity, justice and equality. Advocating for an ecological, feminist and nonviolent politics, Kelly stressed that work for the global good must begin with the individual, insisting,  “We cannot solve any political problems without also addressing our spiritual ones!”

Radically re-imagining social change

Spoken nearly 30 years ago, Petra Kelly’s words ring true now more than ever. Current global crises are calling on us and our social movements to think and act in bigger, bolder ways, to stretch our visions outwards beyond our local environments and social systems and across borders, generations and species. But they also need a shift in consciousness to turn our vision inwards, addressing the internal biases that prevent us from working effectively and inclusively with others.

In their article, The Spirituality of Justice, Dylan and Coates assert, “This consciousness shift… involves gaining compassionate awareness and a lived understanding of interdependency as well as seeing clearly the compass of systemic oppression, exploitation, and devaluation that marks modernist culture in general and environmental destruction particularly.”

While there isn’t a shortage of good intentions in social justice and environmental work, the dynamics of power, oppression, privilege and individualism continue to go unchecked within well-meaning organisations. According to the Movement Strategy Center, individual transformation is often the first step in catalysing organisational, movement and social transformation.

“We see situations again and again of good people within organisations committed to social justice treating each other poorly, struggling with personal and organisational relationships, and harming each other in the name of justice… We see movement sectors that are split and are managing distrust [and] are unable to build strong, lasting alliances.”

Before we can build strong, lasting alliances, we need to examine the way we relate to others in our everyday practices and within our movements. This requires an honest assessment of our own privilege and power on both an interpersonal and organisational level; from how privilege may be reflected in paid leadership or on volunteer boards of directors, to how we incorporate or ignore the experiential knowledge of those most affected by food system issues.

Racial, economic and gendered privilege continues to permeate the work of food and environmental movements, limiting our ability to unite and build an effective counter-movement to the structural forces destroying the health of the planet and most of its peoples. The responsibility for just, inclusive engagement begins with ourselves – how can we cultivate the sort of virtues that commit us not just to personal development, but to systemic change?

Transformative Relationship and Movement Building

Generative learning relationships are essential for system transformation. Building authentic relationships requires us to see and appreciate what is unique and what is shared in our experiences and understandings of the world. Committing ourselves to solidarity – by working through the inequities we bring into our activism – allows us to develop the wisdom to inform leadership and participation in our movements.

Reflecting upon his two-week tour of Australia, Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Giménez shared how true dialogue and knowledge do not begin from a position of power:

“What I experienced in Canberra, Daylesford, and in Lismore was what La Via Campesina has called, ‘un diálogo de saberes.’ Literally ‘a dialogue of different wisdoms,’ it refers to our efforts to communicate across different ways of knowing. What struck me in this dialogue was the difference between European approaches that concentrated on sustainable farm management and “commoning” within communities and the indigenous way of irretrievably belonging to a landscape.”

To build a radical food movement, Holt-Giménez believes we must first dismantle the cultural and racial biases that draw a sharp line between ourselves and the Earth and of different ways of knowing and being in the world. This requires practicing a new set of cultural values. As the Movement Strategy Center explains:

“Transformative movement builders recognise that patterns of injustice are maintained through repeated day to day actions; taking on injustice requires new forms of culture and new modes of relating to ourselves and each other. These practices emphasise mutual interdependence and care between individuals and groups, communities and the planet. Beyond working against injustice, transformative movement builders work for liberation.”

As Holt Giménez affirmed throughout the tour, “dismantling racism, sexism, classism is not ‘extra’ work, it is the work of changing the food system.”

The Interface of Personal and Systemic Change

How can we build a transformative food movement? Where everyone is encouraged to generate and share information about perceiving, understanding and learning about the world. Where leadership is not about making others fall into line under a dominant vision, but about co-creating a story of the future that everyone can engage in advancing. Where everyone makes a courageous commitment to dissolving the systems, structures and culture that suppress some and privilege others – including in our own work and relationships.

The food movement is like an ecosystem: an interdependent web of which we all are a necessary part, a regenerative, diverse culture that mobilises resources to sustain all life. It is this interactive, interdependent and relational capacity of the movement – it’s diverse and complex knowledge networks and feedback loops – that will establish its creativity, adaptability and resilience. The message of Petra Kelly and many other environmental activists still needs to be at the centre of our work and activism. We are just as dependent upon each other as we are upon our planetary home.


Image: “Women in Agriculture” Federico (‘Boy’) Dominguez

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