Why We Need Humane Education: Inspiring Individual AND Systemic Change

In our humane education work at the Institute for Humane Education, we highlight the power of our individual choices to do the most good and the least harm for people, animals & the earth. But we don't stop there. We also emphasize the importance of working to change destructive and harmful systems. Modeling our message AND working for systemic change. Both are interconnected and essential to creating a just, compassionate, healthy world for all. But often in the mainstream, only our "personal choices" are paraded around as viable and necessary for positive change (changing lightbulbs, buying a fuel-efficient car, walking more, eating less meat). Much less attention is given to the giant, complex systems surrounding us that can hamper our desire to do good and defeat our attempts to nurture compassion, justice, and sustainability in the world.

Public health lawyer and Appetite for Profit author and blogger, Michele Simon, offers a great example of the importance of this both/and approach in a recent blog post about the new USDA MyPlate graphic (replacing the food pyramid), which is meant to serve as a guideline to help consumers choose what to eat. She says,
Education alone will not improve dietary habits. The entire exercise of using an image (and other materials) to educate the American public to get us to eat right is doomed to failure, just as history has already shown for decades. And this is a concept not specific to eating behaviors but rather applies across the spectrum of public health issues. To paraphrase public health colleague, Harold Goldstein: There is not a single public health crisis in history that has been solved with a brochure.

Name your health behavior change: smoking, drinking, eating, wearing seat belts or bike helmets, having safe sex, etc, none of them can be accomplished with just education. Rather, policy change is needed to change the physical environment that people live in to help them make healthier choices.
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It’s going to take way more than a measly $2 million educational campaign to get Americans to fill up half their plate with fruits and vegetables. It’s going to take a massive overhaul of our agricultural policies....It’s also going to take addressing the billions of dollars in marketing the food industry spends each year to keep us from eating off of plates at all....It’s especially going to take massive political will to stop the food industry’s predatory marketing of junk food to children....
Read the complete post.

Even if a majority of people changed their personal habits, it wouldn't be enough, because so many systems would still be perpetuating suffering, violence, cruelty, and destruction. So, as humane educators, activists and citizens, it's important that we strive in our own lives (and in our teaching) to not just refuse to buy clothes made in sweatshops, but to work for fair, healthy and safe work places for all; to not just frown and shake our heads at child and sex slavery, but to work to end those practices worldwide; to not just lower our personal carbon footprint, but to work toward a lower global carbon footprint; to not just make food choices that are healthy, humane, and sustainable for ourselves, but to ensure that everyone has access to those same choices. Humane education helps teach and inspire us toward individual AND systemic change, which is the only way to a better world for all.

~ Marsha

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