Taking Shorter Showers Doesn't Cut It
Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change
People who pat themselves on the back for their lifestyle might yet have more to do. And to do it might need a positive vision. This article was first published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion Magazine click here then posted on AlterNet July 13.
by Derrick JensenWho thinks 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? Yet now many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”.
An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But all 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. Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, US carbon emissions would fall by only 22%. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75% worldwide.
Kirkpatrick Sale noted: “For the past 15 years, individual consumption of energy -- residential, by private car, and so on -- is 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 atmospheric pollution.”
Or let’s talk water. More than 90% of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10% is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. Shorter showers won’t dent 90% of water use
Or let’s talk waste. Municipal waste accounts for only 3% of total waste production in the United States. Reduce, reuse, and recycle won’t dent 97% of garbage.
Every action involving the industrial economy is destructive; solar photovoltaics, for example, require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other apt-tech. If we live simply, thus causing less harm, we get to feel pure. But not transforming the economy keeps it chewing up and spewing on the planet.
One problem with simple living 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.
Another 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 replace) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that destroy, then what will cause the least destruction possible is us being dead.
Simple living consists solely of harm reduction, yet humans can help the Earth, too. We can rehabilitate streams, get rid of noxious invasives, remove dams, 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 fourth problem is that it redefines 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.
While I live reasonably simply myself, 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.
Change-makers did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. 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.
JJS: Actually, no. It’s to replace those systems with one better. To achieve that, activists need a far deeper understanding of the current system than revealed by the incessant use of the word “capitalism”. A deep understanding then lets would-be reformers articulate a vision of world working right for everyone, using language that resonates with a critical mass. Following those two steps leads to geonomics, to a shift of taxes and subsidies so that we end privilege and end up sharing the worth of Earth. Replacing counterproductive taxes with “land dues” and addictive subsidies with “rent shares” is what will harmonize human prowess with natural constraints.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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