A couple of weeks ago, my wife came across the on-line article “Forget Shorter Showers”, by Derrick Jensen, in ORION Magazine. His tag line for the article was “Why personal change does not equal political change.” Up to the title and tag line, I was okay with the premise. Then, he went completely off track when trying to make THAT case. He opened by making ridiculous comparisons; dumpster diving (recycling) would not have stopped Hitler; composting would not have ended slavery; and my favorite curious comparison, “dancing naked around a fire would not have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Jensen continues by giving examples in the areas of water conservation, energy usage and waste management, where the steps we take as individuals make us feel “responsible” for the problems, rather than the system at large. He finishes with the inference that the contributions of individuals are “utterly insufficient responses” to the problem as a whole and argues that individual commitment to sustainability “as a political act, is suicide”, as we can “easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.”
While I agree that each individual’s personal commitment to living sustainably isn’t enough, I wholly disagree with the premise that personal change isn’t a valid approach to evoking large scale change.
Jensen finishes with the premise that we have only 3 options: We can 1) Give up and join the Industrial Economy that is destroying the planet, 2) Live sustainably and commit political suicide, or 3) Become activists and confront and take down systems of oppressive power.
Megan Dietz, in her “Redemption vs Revolution” response to Jensen’s article, wrote, “I couldn’t agree more with him that we need far bigger changes than new light bulbs and shorter showers. Our lifestyle choices don’t have nearly the impact that the culture tells us they do.”
Dietz’s first statement is true enough, but I disagree with her second. I believe that a commitment to change on a personal level is the first step to change in a community, city, state, the country, and ultimately worldwide.
I also agree with Dietz’s comment that there must be a combination of options, “swift, radical transformation is catalyzed by two concurrent and related forces: a problem to be solved, and a moral compulsion to solve it.”
The power of the individual takes time to make a difference, but there is a point, where political resolve becomes part of a groundswell, that is exponentially more powerful than the individual elements. The system doesn’t need to be destroyed and it is not as simple as US vs THEM. I agree with Megan Dietz:
“Just as not everyone who embraces traditional religious values is a bigot, not everyone who embraces capitalism is a mustache-twirling villain. We have to stop looking at this in such adversarial terms, and start seeing it as a process in which each of us—environmentalist, businessperson, mother, and soldier—has a part to play.”
We should not minimize the cumulative effect of consumer choices. Industry listens to individuals, to consumers or it doesn’t survive. Politicians too, are subject to the will of the people. Individuals are drinking the 22 Billion bottles of water manufactured in the United States every year. Individuals contributed to the over 250 Million tons of garbage produced in the US every year. Individuals, with a little effort can reduce their KWhrs by 20% every month, and with 140 million households in the US, well, that’s a very large number. And yes, individuals can and should demand industry and their government to follow their lead. We have a problem to solve, and with enough moral compulsion, we can make the difference.