Karen O’Brien and Ann Kristin Schorre
Climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and deforestation are transforming socioecological systems, with the possibility of crossing thresholds or “planetary boundaries” that provide a safe operating space for humanity. Given what is at stake, it is useful to step back and reflect on our ability to consciously produce a world where all species and ecosystems can thrive. Do we have the capacity to transform society rapidly, equitably, and sustainably? What role do individuals play in the process of social, political, and ecological transformations?
If our goal is to deliberately reduce the risks of climate disruptions and other threats to sustainability, we need to unleash humanity’s potential for both individual and collective change. The word agency is widelyused to describe a person’s capacity to act independently and make freechoices to influence outcomes. Without agents of change, there is little hope of creating societal transformations at the rate, scale, magnitude, and depth that scientists and policy makers consider necessary to avoid the most dangerous climate scenarios. Unfortunately, the words agent and agency fall flat; they do little to inspire action or to connect individuals to the communities of which they are a part. We need a livelier word that captures and activates the capacity of agents and agency to generate radical social change. The Norwegian word ildsjel does just that.
A Better Word for a Better World
Ildsjel is a noun that has been loosely translated into English as “enthusiast,” or someone with a passionate commitment to a cause. Ildsjeler (the plural of ildsjel) work against the odds, striving for goals that they—and their communities—consider important, regardless of the economic, social, and structural obstacles. They are innovators who often take risks and do things that others consider impossible. More than mere dreamers, ildsjeler tend to be visionaries driven by possibilities and potentials for transformation. Of course, desirable visions tend to be normative, and they will vary between groups and situations, depending on the values and interests of the ildsjel. When it comes to transformations to sustainability, it is important to pay attention to the social context and espoused values of ildsjeler.
Let’s consider the social context in which the term is currently used in Norway, a social democratic state with cultural values that emphasize solidarity and equity for all. Rooted in the trade union movement of the late nineteenth century and the struggle for universal suffrage, Norway’s social democracy was built around a welfare state that aimed for full employment, considerable state control over the economy, and the redistribution of wealth. Norwegian culture emphasizes codetermination and egalitarianism; it recognizes that social democracy depends on a shared sense of community.
In Norway, ildsjeler are celebrated for the positive role that they play in groups, organizations, and initiatives, especially through voluntary service. They are active in schools, sports, the arts, and festivals, as well as in community development projects, local history and museum projects, and innovative businesses. Ildsjeler are those who do more than what is expected of them within a culture that values solidarity and where altruistic actions are appreciated.
In Norway, numerous books and articles have been written about ildsjeler, and awards are given annually to people with a passion and commitment to doing good. On the basis of interviews with ten ildsjeler in Norway, journalist Niels Christian Geelmuyden reports that they tend to live for meaning and purpose, contributing to something greater than themselves. Examples of ildsjeler are plentiful, though many of them work behind the scenes and are seldom recognized for their roles outside of their communities. The term ildsjel applies not only to well-known activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, but also to the man who organizes a movement to protect a local park, or the woman who, despite the obstacles, perseveres to design an inexpensive water purifier that protects millions of people from cholera.
Ildsjeler make change happen, often by inspiring others to join the process. In an interview with Geelmuyden, Ingebrigt Steen Jensen says: “The fire must benefit others. . . . An ildsjel must get the fire to spread. Ildsjeleri does not occur in isolation.” Ildsjeler stoke the fires in other souls; they create spaces that attract people and inspire participation and engagement. But what does this word bring to the table that is missing in the current lexicon of transformative change?
Agents of Change
The concept of agency refers to the capacity of individuals and groups to play a significant role in shaping outcomes that influence their futures. To have personal or social agency is to be capable of exerting power to achieve some end or goal. This includes the potential to exercise free will and to act against existing social structures and/or create new ones. Agency also implies some degree of self-awareness and reflexivity, including an ability to question existing norms and challenge the status quo. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, experts in adult learning and education, describe the development of agency as a shift from a socialized mind-set to a self-authoring mind-set. This especially involves challenging the social and cultural scripts as well as the assigned roles and identities that are perceived or presented as immutable or unquestionable.
The need for a critical, reflective, and nuanced approach to the concept of human agency is important, as individual and social agency have undeniably contributed to climate change and many other acute social and environmental problems. Throughout history, the agency of individuals and groups has been used to dominate, oppress, or dispossess others, often by expropriating land, exploiting resources, or contaminating air, water, or soil. Some individuals and groups bear a greater responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and some have more power to influence or impede solutions. Indeed, some people may use their agency to protect vested interests in fossil fuel extraction and consumption, labeling those who challenge the status quo as dangerous and disruptive to energy security.
Scientists argue that humans now play such a significant role in shaping Earth system processes that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. Some point to population growth as a key driver of human impacts on the environment, while others emphasize population, affluence, and technology—the famous I = PAT equation. Common to these theories is a recognition that humans are using resources and transforming our natural and social worlds at an unprecedented rate, magnitude, and scale.
To gain a better understanding of the collective behavior of hu-mans, interdisciplinary teams of researchers have developed models that explore how simple rules can generate complex behaviors observed in society. Agent-based modeling is a method that simulates the actions and interactions of autonomous agents, whether they are individuals or collective organizations and groups. In these models, human agents are presumed to be rational and acting in their own self-interest, yet capable of learning and adapting. This approach assumes that when we realize that an ecologically sustainable way of life is in our own self-interest, we will respond rationally and change behaviors, develop new technologies, and collaborate on local and national policies and international agreements.
Yet conscious decisions and intentional actions taken by individuals and groups are both influenced by and affect social norms, rules, regulations, institutions, and laws, as well as cultural beliefs and worldviews. Solving environmental problems requires more than behavioral nudges. It requires stimulating collective agency to transform social structures and power relationships that have negative impacts on both people and the planet.
It is, however, difficult to act truly autonomously and deliberately step out of existing social norms and practices, particularly those that are embedded in culture. Indeed, many of those who are recognized as agents of change are always to some extent operating within a particular social discourse. An example is the climate activist who focuses on changing people’s habits to reduce carbon emissions while failing to consider the underlying political, economic, social, and cultural conditions that maintain the logic of consumerism—what can be thought of as “the habits of capitalism.” Can we think outside the box when it comes to solutions to complex problems such as climate change, where the future is dependent on the current choices of a multitude of human actions? Do the concepts of agent and agency inspire people to transform?
In everyday language, the word agent is not particularly exciting. It has no soul, no energy, and a limited capacity to generate positive interventions. The words agent and agency may recall images of individuals sitting in featureless buildings filled with desks, dutifully helping others. They are often associated with an administrative unit or some kind of business enterprise: travel agent, insurance agent, advertising agent, intelligence agent. At a time that calls for transformative changes to secure the future for humans and other species, we need an active and vibrant way to capture the potential for people to make a positive difference. The word ildsjel fulfills this need.
An ildsjel is literally a “fire soul.” The word communicates both energy and spirit. It conveys a burning force that is powerful and productive, a force ready to spread like wildfire, making way for new seeds to germinate. Ildsjel describes a lively spirit that is aware, engaged, and ready to act. Geelmuyden points out that many ildsjeler have managed to transmute anger into a moral outrage that compels them to act. Ildsjel or “fire soul” adds human vitality to the concept of agent, which is typically assigned a rational, calculated approach to change.
Vitality is a power or energy that is present in all living things. Vitalism holds that life depends on an elán vital, or a nonmaterial life force that does not rely on purely chemical or physical forces. Indeed, it is sometimes used as an explanation for the spirit or soul, since it is not observable and can only be validated through experience or consciousness. Over the last century, research in genetics and biology has led to the dismissal of vitalism as a philosophy. However, scholars in the environmental humanities and social sciences have recently reengaged with vitalism, with some even arguing that there is a vibrant life force in all material things. For example, political theorist Jane Bennett describes a materialism that, in contrast to a mechanistic or deterministic materialism, recognizes matter as “vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and effluescent.” She does not reduce political agency to human agency, instead recognizing a vibrant, nonhuman agency that is inextricably enmeshed with human culture.
Ildsjeler often engage with transformative change within a dominant paradigm that is rational, individualistic, and deterministic. This worldview considers humans as separate from nature and separate from each other, since matter is seen as lifeless or dead. Indeed, philosopher Andreas Weber points to the dark side of the Enlightenment habits of thought that have served as the foundation for modern scientific and technological progress: “The Enlightenment project has no use for notions of life, sentience, experience, subjectivity, corporeal embodiment and agency.” Adherence to the Enlightenment paradigm can make collective and collaborative change seem impossible or unrealistic, leading to the widespread belief that people cannot and do not make a difference—except by changing their own behaviors and consumption choices. The potential for an individual or group to generate large-scale, positive social and political change is often trivialized or ridiculed.
Weber offers what he calls Enlivenment as an alternative. This concept seeks to “expand our view of what human beings are as embodied subjects,” linking rationality with subjectivity and sentience to capture the “aliveness” of a person. Whereas the Enlightenment paradigm recognizes only limited and constrained human agency, the Enlivenment paradigm acknowledges that all humans have the capacity to be ildsjeler, or what leadership theorist Monica Sharma calls “principled game changers who also inspire others to commit to action.” This, Sharma explains, involves “a combination of listening deeply, speaking responsibly, and generating new societal conversations drawn from our inner capacities and universal values.”
Burning For versus Burning Out
Burning passionately to create positive change without strong economic, institutional, and civic support brings with it the risk of burnout. The notion of burning out seems to recognize that we have a fire within us that needs to be fed and nurtured. Even a single voice of encouragement or a small sign of support can keep the fire burning in an ildsjel. Without this fire, an ildsjel may be reduced to serving as just another rational agent of change. The idea of having a fire soul resonates with what Joan Borysenko, a pioneer in integrative medicine, refers to as an experience of “fire in the soul.” She considers this to be a process where one’s masks, veils, and facades are painfully burned away to reveal an inner light: “When our souls are on fire, old beliefs and opinions can be consumed, bringing us closer to our essential nature and to the heart of healing. Experiences of inner burning have been called dark nights of the soul.” As geographer Lesley Head suggests, such “dark nights” may be necessary for addressing global environmental problems like climate change. In describing the important role of emotions in the Anthropocene, she argues that we need to acknowledge feelings such as grief and denial so as to enact effective politics. This recognition is the first step in discarding the crippling belief that change is not possible and in releasing the vitality of the ildsjel that already exists in all of us.
The words we currently use to describe the role of individuals in processes of social transformations inadequately represent humanity’s true potential. This is a problem because words are potent: they transmit both meaning and emotion. How we talk about change influences the possibilities that we imagine, act on, and eventually realize. The word agency communicates a limited capacity to inspire collective change. In contrast, an ildsjel is vital, alive, and connected to their community. The word ildsjel adds to our conception of the human potential for transformation by conveying how individuals can and do make a difference. As fire souls, we already have a burning force within us that connects us to others and can activate change.
There is an urgent need to empower people. We need the fire in our souls to be activated by our moral outrage about the current social and environmental conditions and risks. We also need empowering expressions of humanity’s potential to contribute to a healthy world in which we can all thrive. Ildsjeler have the capacity to light the fire in others and generate transformations to a more just and sustainable world. The Norwegian word ildsjel is an example of a word that has the potential to activate collaborative change in a way that agency cannot.
Another Path: Metahuman
1. Will Steffen, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347, no. 6223 (2015): 1259855.
2. Nik Brandal, Øivind Bratberg, and Dag Einar Thorsen, The Nordic Model of Social Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
3. Guri Mette Vestby, Frants Gundersen, and Ragnhild Skogheim, Ildsjeler og lokalt utviklingsarbeid, NIBR report, 2014, http://www.hioa.no/content/download/109210/2606477/file/NIBR-rapport%202014:2%20(PDF)_afff6970759350d826794dc5dbf1d117.2014-2.pdf.
4. Niels Christian Geelmuyden, I hodet på en ildsjel (Fornebu, Norway: Dinamo Forlag, 2010).
5. Geelmuyden, I hodet på en ildsjel, 60–61, our translation.
6. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 2009).
7. See Simon Dalby, “Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Anthropocene Review 3, no. 1 (2016): 33–51.
8. Thomas Dietz, Eugene A. Rosa, and Richard York, “Driving the Human Ecological Footprint,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5, no. 1 (2007): 13–18.
9. Eric Bonabeau, “Agent-Based Modeling: Methods and Techniques for Simulating Human Systems,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99, no. 3 (2002): 7280–87.
10. Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
11. Harold Wilhite, The Political Economy of Low Carbon Transformation: Breaking the Habits of Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2016).
12. Alexander Wendt, Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
13. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), 112.
14. See Wendt, Quantum Mind.
15. Andreas Weber, Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics (Berlin: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 2013), 15.
16. Weber, Enlivenment, 15.
17. Monica Sharma, Radical Transformative Leadership: Strategic Action for Change Agents (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2017), xvi.
18. Joan Borysenko, Fire in the Soul: A New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism (New York: Grand Central, 1994), 4.
19. Lesley Head, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising Human–Nature Relations (New York: Routledge, 2016).