Why personal change does not equal political change

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  • Thu, Jul 23, 2009 - 05:59am



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    Why personal change does not equal political change


Forget Shorter Showers

Why personal change does not equal political change

Published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion magazine

by Derrick Jensen

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.

  • Thu, Jul 23, 2009 - 11:18am

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    Re: Why personal change does not equal political change

Great essay.   Reminds me of this quote: 



"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
  Frederick Douglass, 1857



I think one big componet that makes this particular challenge difficult is that we don’t know what to demand because the scale of the problem is all encompassing.   Jensen mentions "Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States" as periods when people did the right thing, but these problems where comparative so to speak.  You could see the disparity and say you wanted equality or the system to change in a way that the outgroup would be included in a fair system and you could point to places where that was happening.  Right now, where do you point and say, "thats what we want."  As I try to figure out how to be politcally active regarding growth, industrial society, and killing the planet, it is immediately clear that there is no where to point, so the act of imagination needs to happen.  l have a hard time imaging the world Derrick Jenson would like to create. 

I know in previous posts on this site people have asked what are people doing politically around these issues and don’t recall seeing good answers on the scale needed to match the challenge that would even be equivalent to what was done during Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the antebellum United States periods.  CMs current point of view seems to be, get the message out this year to as many people as possible and then a tipping point can begin.  I think we also need a positive vision of the society we are working towards that realistically addresses the problems that Jensen has been so good at pointing out in his work.  Cutting our speed as we drive toward a cliff is not going to help us in the end, but I think that until we can do the imaginative work to present the vision of the world we are fighting for it will be difficult to make the converts we need to succeed in the fight.  I wonder if you have found a clear picture anywhere of what world we want?  I am still looking for that vision and I find it hard to know what to demand before I have it.

  • Thu, Jul 23, 2009 - 11:47pm

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    we need to imagine the future

Hi VanityFox,

I read through the Hirsh Report.  It was actually more positive than I thought it would be.  I think our situation is a lot worse.  But I still think we need to imagine the kind of society we want, given the real state of the world, both in terms of energy and other resources and the state of the environment, because until we can imagine what we want, we can’t agitate for it.  I think this is one of the most important taskes we have to do as a culture before we will effectively approach the questions about what we need to do.  There isn’t the option of replacing our current "way of life" with a sustainable energy one, because it is not only just not possible, but also because why would we rebuild a world with the same problems as this one, when we have to rebuild the world anyway.  I’m not sure how we go about the imaginative process that we need to.  I don’t think society has ever faced this kind of change on this kind of scale in a primarily involuntarily way.  It seems like this is a necessary step before the political work will get very far.  What kind of world do you think we can build given the facts of energy, resources, and the environment?

  • Fri, Jul 24, 2009 - 09:02am

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    Re: Why personal change does not equal political change

Hi David,
I’m really pleased you’ve read through the report. I placed it into my signature about 9 weeks ago and hope others have also.

I wasn’t in any way making a statement toward this thread with it but simply leaving a ‘full stop’ (see above) in my post so that I could comment at a later stage with Mike with his Derrick Jensen article and wouldn’t lose my place.

Your question is thought-provocking and I respect you for that. In truth, I don’t believe politicians are going to be able to dig our way out of the effects of our pasts. Infact, I think they, in their need for survival have simply bred more of themselves, promoting their usefulness to such a monumental degree that we’re so far beyond any possibility of our collective expectations, we’ve only propoganda left to power the lights.

My thoughts are with a lady in her 80’s who’s marriage had lasted 63 years. She said that her husband, who had always paid the house-hold bills in cash over the counter had turned all of his payments into debits from an account in her name. Shortly after, he died in his sleep peacefully. He put all of his affairs in order and, from this message to you, we should do the same.

It will be from small groups that the future will lay, who will carry the candle forward for those generations that will still remain. There is no escape route, with the wheel of chance being our lady of luck. Simply stated: you play, you win, you play you lose; all of this geared to the loading of the dice.

We can grow our own crop, build a community, yet still we can fail mercilously …

… a future so far out and built upon speculation with the wonders of Fact, Belief and Opinion are viewed to me as ‘Facts’ are stark and only ‘Belief’ and ‘Opinion’ seem weighted in any respect …

… we can but deal within the moment …

I would love to talk with you more, but this is a brief respite online for another week or two. I’m heading back to the UK in about 4 hours …

Take Care,



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