So like everyone else, you’ve been buying Thneeds from the Once-ler for years without ever hesitating to think about it.
After all, a Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat. But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that. …
But then one day you read an eye-opening, heart-rending piece of investigative journalism. You come to understand the awful ramifications of the manufacture and distribution of Thneeds. You learn about Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp and what they are doing to the critical habitat of Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans and Humming Fish.
Step 1: Abstaining from complicity
And then it dawns on you that you are complicit in this. Every penny you’ve spent over the years buying Thneeds has gone to support the Once-ler’s Truffula-destroying death-machine. And you decide you want no part of that.
This is a Good Thing. It’s also the right thing to do.
First, do no harm. By refusing to participate in the harm being done to the Bar-baloots and the Swomee Swans and the Humming Fish, you’re becoming a less harmful person and therefore a better person. You’re also making your money serve your morals instead of the other way around. This is all good and necessary. I would even say it’s obligatory.
But it’s also mostly about you — not in a selfish sense, but your decision to stop buying Thneeds will affect you more than it affects anything else. Your abstention may have some effect on the Once-ler and on the Bar-ba-loots, etc. By withholding your financial support, you may be very, very slightly reducing the Once-ler’s capacity to harm those creatures. And you’re contributing to market pressures that might persuade the Once-ler to reform his ways — if, that is, he is somehow able to determine that his infinitesimal dip in revenue is due to losing you as a customer, and if he is further able to guess at the reason for that loss.
You’ll probably want to encourage such reform by sending him a letter announcing your decision and explaining your reasons for it. It’s not terribly likely, but it’s possible that such a letter will help to nudge the corporation in a more positive direction.
But even after you craft a compelling, eloquent letter and fire it off to Once-ler HQ, the bottom line is that your decision to never again buy a Thneed won’t do much to change the Once-ler or to change the world. Mostly it will just change you.
That’s a Good Thing, but perhaps it’s also just a good start.
Step 2: Organizing a boycott
Having changed yourself, you’ve now become the sort of person who can’t bear not also trying to change the world. You realize that’s a much bigger job and that you won’t be able to do it alone. So you decide to start organizing and recruiting others to join you in a formal boycott of the Once-ler.
This changes what you’re doing. Before you were an individual, acting alone and vowing never again to buy a Thneed. But now, by organizing a boycott, you’re no longer just an individual acting alone. And you’re also no longer vowing to never again purchase a Thneed.
Boycotts are not about “never.” Boycotts are about “until.” (Or, to stick with our theme here, about “unless.”)
The point of a boycott is not to start a “No Thneeds” club, but rather it’s about leveraging your collective economic power as consumers to compel the Once-ler to reform his practices. If the only goal of your boycott is a cry of protest — a collective howl of “Yee-argh!” — then you probably will achieve that goal.
But that’s probably all you will achieve.
To be effective, a boycott needs to set specific goals and to make specific demands. You’ll need something concrete and measurable that you can demand the Once-ler do, insisting that none of you will buy Thneeds until he commits to doing it. Perhaps a Truffula-tree replanting program to ensure a sustainable Bar-ba-loot habitat, plus a commitment to stop dumping Gluppity-Glupp into Humming Fish ponds.
This approach is far likelier to have an impact on the Once-ler’s behavior, and is thus likely to be a more effective way of changing the world.
But note that this approach also once again involves you in the world of the Once-ler. You’re no longer abstaining. By shifting the focus away from maintaining your own impotent innocence, you may lose a bit of that innocence in exchange for losing that impotence. “Never again” becomes “not until,” and the promise of achieving some kind of individual moral purity recedes a bit.
Taking this step involves trade-offs because this step involves involvement. Involvement means caring more about changing the world than about abstaining from it to preserve your own purity.
And unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.