Some days back, a few of us were discussing whether to attend a circus which is currently showing in the city. A friend was insistent that he would not go because he did not approve of the abuse of animals. Notwithstanding the use of animals in agriculture, dairy, honey, wool, leather, poultry, meat production, etc. this led me to think of a deeper issue: Whether an individual's actions have any significance? The circus will go on, the animals will continue to get abused. It was not my friend's contention that he doesn't enjoy seeing animals performing tricks (I, on the other hand, find animal tricks silly), he insisted that he was engaging in a form of individual protest by not going to the circus.
Many people, as a matter of principle, change their lifestyle in small ways to be consistent with their opinions or knowledge. A friend of mine does not attend weddings because he considers them to be the formation of a potentially limiting lifelong attachment. Another uses both sides of a paper, in order to conserve rainforests (though he can be seen driving an SUV). Another does not like using plastic bags. Then there are those who do not like to consume Coca Cola or wear Nike shoes, as a form of protest against their corporate policies.
I have nothing against someone drinking coke, or someone not drinking it. In my understanding, individuals don't matter when it comes to large-scale phenomena, and individual acts of protest are meaningless, especially if they are passive and non-participatory. What makes a difference is a policy-level change (e.g. one which takes care of the corporate abuse) through sustained effort. A few people refusing to use plastics, or refusing to drink Coke (let's say 1000 people in a population of 1 million) is a literally negligible change - 0.1% to be precise, more akin to noise, and is even less than the normal fluctuations between the daily consumption figures of plastics or coke in a particular city/region.
Yes, if 2012 was at hand, such acts would delay the apocalypse by a minute. But is it possible to make use of one's understanding of an issue in a better way than to waste one's time trying to live up to a lifestyle choice (for example by insisting in every shop that one won't take a plastic bag, or by asking for a glass of juice when everybody else is having coke)?
Now if a person doesn't drink coke due to its presumably ill effects on health, I can understand his decision (and the polite thing to do, when offered the drink, is to smilingly refuse, without explanation). What I don't understand is the assertion that somehow his decision (limited to not drinking coke) is a meaningful protest against the Coca Cola company. If he writes a letter to a newspaper, or stands besides a cold drink vending machine and distributes a pamphlet describing the corporate policies of Coke, I could find some merit in his stand, but as an individual refusal to drink coke, I find his decision a feel-good act which actually does nothing.
One argument in favour of such acts is that they may propagate via individual interactions with such people. However, it is unlikely that the deep understanding and research which ideally lies behind such decisions can be communicated in 2-3 minutes (except by being highly biased and selective) to another person. Hence, such propagation is likely to be opinionated and half-baked, and usually results in an "us-versus-them" mentality.
On the other hand, by assisting in policy level changes by addressing the authorities in charge, one has a real chance at making an effective change. But this is hard, usually requires writing skills (whereas most righteous folks have unquestioning, and hence questionable, reading skills only) and requires persistent engagement. As an example, some citiies in India have banned certain forms of plastic bags after sustained efforts by some NGOs, and in one swoop have done far more than an individual could have done in a lifetime of resisting plastic bags.
But what is that someone to do, who is admittedly unable to engage with the public authorities? Should he/she just go on doing what he/she used to do? What about the guilt that one would have everytime one consumed a coke? I think it is reasonable to want to avoid these feelings of guilt, but maybe one can temper one's ego and self-righteousness by keeping in mind that an individual act is meaningless insofar as making a difference to the world is concerned. That the world is not a "fair" place in any sense of the word, and that one has only symbolically addressed a particularly known form of unfairness by a rather easy act.
What do you think?