Taking Shorter Showers Doesn’t Cut It: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change By Derrick Jensen

Taking Shorter Showers Doesn’t Cut It: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change
By Derrick Jensen

This article was first published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion Magazine.

We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.
Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption—residential, by private car, and so on—is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”

Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

So how, then, and especially with all the world at stake, have we come to accept these utterly insufficient responses? I think part of it is that we’re in a double bind. A double bind is where you’re given multiple options, but no matter what option you choose, you lose, and withdrawal is not an option. At this point, it should be pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive (and we shouldn’t pretend that solar photovoltaics, for example, exempt us from this: they still require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other so-called green technology). So if we choose option one—if we avidly participate in the industrial economy—we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses. If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses. The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world—none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.

Besides being ineffective at causing the sorts of changes necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are at least four other problems with perceiving simple living as a political act (as opposed to living simply because that’s what you want to do). The first is that it’s predicated on the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase. Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.

The second problem—and this is another big one—is that it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself. Kirkpatrick Sale again: “The whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth guilt trip is a myth. We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them.”

The third problem is that it accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers. By accepting this redefinition, we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.

The fourth problem is that the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.

The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned—Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States—who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.

© 2009 Orion

Derrick Jensen is an activist and the author of many books, most recently What We Leave Behind and Songs of the Dead.

Views: 22


You need to be a member of Regenerative Communities Network to add comments!

Join Regenerative Communities Network

Comment by Tree Lees on July 23, 2009 at 11:32am
August 1 and 8 Permaculture Workshops, 9am to 1pm. $10 per person at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in El Chorro Regional Park. Hands-on workshops to help construct the Children's Edible Garden. Workshop fee will go back into the budget for more plant material for the children's garden. Snacks are included. We will be building a heart shaped spiral out of broken concrete and mushroom compost as well as installing plants and irrigation lines. We are creating a new landscape area north of the Oak Glen Pavilion that includes edible plants from around the world in a seven layer system called a Food Forest.Workshop facilitators include Jordan and Maleah of N'Credible Edibles and Josh Carmichael of Carmichael Environmental Landscapers.

Please contact Teresa "Tree" Lees, Education Coordinator (tlees@slobg.org or 541-1400 x304) to let her know if you can make either or both of the workshops. We could really use help, as "many hands to make light work." Donations of money and plant material are also being accepted to make this Children's Edible Garden a reality.

Teresa Lees, Education Coordinator
San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
541-1400 x304
Comment by Jabari S. Jones on July 21, 2009 at 2:19pm
The system is a big poisonous tree (or bermuda grass, pick your metaphor), it's going to take many small axes chopping from all directions at any given time to take it down. For some people their focus is on the roots, for others it's the branches. "From each according to their ability..." If we all do the same thing at the same time, it's an easier action to block, manipulate, divert. Any system has flaws, we need to find the weak points and exploit all of them, not debate endlessly about which ones are the most important to everyone to focus on. Divide, and conquer. Some of us are attacking the system head-on with sabotage or petitions, while others are preparing for it's violent collapse with permaculture. It's a big system, there's plenty of work to go around and lots of options, but, yes, not a whole lot of time (if predictions are true, but who knows what the future will actually bring.) The more aware and respectful we are of what others are doing, the better position we'll be in to coordinate actions and support each other. We're all in this together!
Comment by Jabari S. Jones on July 21, 2009 at 2:02pm
I think something both David and Derrick touch on is that however we identify ourselves, as "consumers" or "citizens" or "producers" etc., the choices we make have consequences, but some choices have greater consequences than others. It's going to take all kinds of choices, all the time, to make change happen at all levels. I agree that the legislative level is largely a waste of time and energy because of the degree of corruption and collusion between elected representatives and industry, and the enforcement of the one-party (capitalist) system. Still, it is a sphere of power in which our consent, though mediated, is required in order to continue the sham of 'American democracy'. The question of how to use that leverage is debatable. I voted for Cynthia McKinney in the presidential election because (1) I figured California would go to Obama anyway and (2) I didn't buy the sensationalized narrative of hope and change, and (3) because I think that "it's better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don't want and get it." I had no illusions about Cynthia winning, but I felt my choice would have an effect nevertheless and it took little effort on my part (so I could channel energy towards choices that would have a more immediate impact on my life and environment). It's not about doing this or that, but doing this and that and the other thing, with different levels of intensity. Our corporate masters need us whether they like it or not, we must discover all the ways they use us and develop methods of total refusal ballot by ballot, boycott by boycott, by any means necessary. The key is how we identify OURSELVES. Question how industry and government identify and manipulate us. Identity is just an idea, but it's ideas that run the world.
Comment by david hartley on July 20, 2009 at 9:38am

Derrick makes some good points, but I wonder how he/you think that suddenly "we" can have some huge impact on the corporate institutions which control & govern planet earth?

I see "harm reduction," localization, DIY agriculture, and similar measures as valid & necessary.. even if only as some acts we can all partake in.. WHILE we are networking, searching for inspiration within ourselves & others, taking on the reality that drastic change MUST occur if "the masses" of humanity are to survive the probable attempts at thinning the herd.

I don't see the value of the strawman argument with self-extinction juxtaposed against some posited lack of sufficiently vigorous action against "industrial economy." In fact, as "an activist and the author of many books" I would suggest to him that he consider some editorship prior to firing off such an ill conceived and poorly executed paragraph =:-\

Since as he says, the corporate masters of the means of production and of the dollar .. have come to view "us" (and to depend on us) as "consumers" What better way (absent armed revolution) have we than to consume less of their products; grow our own food, harvest rainwater, quit taking showers altogether maybe .. though if we ALL stop eating factory farmed meat that alone would solve domestic "water shortage" -not to mention cutting down on "swine flu" and "bird flu" vectors.

Derrick seems to put faith in political process, where I see politics as the tail wagged by the corporation$$$.
Corporations have endless $ to pervert political process; (have we not just been witness to the abundant largess which the corps lavished on themselves via their elected (purchased) representatives ?) They have endless candidates to build-up & throw away as desired.

Our POWER .. our VOTE .. is "to spend or not to spend." That is the question.
By giving support (purchasing) only "least harm" products from the "most local" and "most green" and most "worker friendly" (etc) businesses .. I believe we do far more than we could spending 3hours every day trying to get some brilliant new Obama campaign promise energy bill passed, only to have corporate$$ cram a rider into it pulling its teeth in terms of dirty coal & oil.

In addition to voting with our money for the above local & "least harm" choices, we may also begin to get it together to make "our money" ... OURS. Local economies, with local currency will be able to circulate that local currency MANY times moreso than with FRNs ([non]Federal [no]Reserves Notes) which are the epitome of capitalist oppression blood money... every time you spend one of these bloodbucks you're buying into the megacorp military industrial endless war machine.

"Salvation" of the masses of humanity seem to me likely only in the event of some altogether likely quantum technological leap, which MIGHT be already stashed in some corporate vault, having been bought up as a patent likely to lead to unwanted ultra-high-tech solar cells (for instance) which can be made into slightly expensive house-paint in order to have off-the-grid homes.

It might be more fruitful to encourage patent repudiation (the corps will call it piracy) than to waste too much time getting bogged down in the naive hopes that "we the people" might re-take the political process from its current owners (absent armed revolution.)

If enough sharp minds were to tackle Tesla tech, there is another one-single-thing which could make global warming & coal/oil/nukes/etc go bye-bye in the figurative wink of an eye.

Funny, the mention of ENDCIV, given my bit of disagreement here plus the fact that I wrote some stuff about NEWCIV around 11yrs ago with some online friends..

warm wishes,
david hartley
I.T. support www.cafegratitude.com

friends/singer/songwiters Makepeace bros: "Hero" http://twitc.com/P7nIongd
Comment by bob banner on July 19, 2009 at 4:13pm
Hi thanks.. just for those who might be confused at the short comment by Nicholas, please visit http://gaiapermaculture.com/projects/permaculturecooperative/blog/2... for the entire article.
Comment by Nicholas Roberts on July 19, 2009 at 3:43pm
Derrick Jensen is making a movie with Frank Lopez of Submedia.TV called ENDCIV. At a preview screening of END:CIV I asked Frank a question about the Transition movement and permaculture. “During the making of the films, you would’ve of interviewed many people who as well as being involved in resistance, where also involved in permaculture and other tactics, the Transition movement is also huge, has just become big in the US, have you had anything to do with the Transition Movement... also I noticed recently that Derrick Jenson has created a new publishing project Flashpoint Press that has a joined with PM Press and published a book The Vegetarian Myth written by Lierre Keith, in that book, the author talks a lot about perennial polyculture and permaculture.”
Comment by Corrina Cop Rain McFarlane on July 19, 2009 at 3:03pm
There are a 1000 ways that old paradigms dissolve and one way is to keep rippling out the stories that delight and surprise us. Speaking of golf courses, did you know that the feds were down on City of San Jose for de-salinating the Bay from their oh-so-efficient water treatment plant (taking polluted water and out-putting nice clean water into the Bay but it was fresh water, hence problematic to that environment). The City responded by laying a comprehensive purple pipe system to pipe that water away from the Bay and compel businesses (including golf courses) to use ONLY that (more expensive) water for all their irrigation needs.

© 2018   Created by Darlene Cavallara.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service