In my book, and elsewhere on this blog, I have commented on Derrick Jensen’s well-known piece “Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change.”
When I first read that article, some years ago, it came across to me as saying that there’s no point in making any personal change. I later realized that wasn’t what he was saying. But I still think he underplays the importance of personal everyday choices. And I have observed many of my fellow environmentalist falling into the same thinking.
When I hear Jensen and many other climate-aware people saying that our personal choices are just a drop in the bucket, I always feel that they are overlooking or at least radically underestimating, the “beneficial contagion” factor that our personal everyday choices can have. We do influence the people around us, to a degree that goes beyond the mere simple math of our reduction in water use, electricity use, and so on.
There’s also the basic simple truth that we can’t expect government and corporations to change the entire structure of systems, while consumer demand continues to push them in the opposite direction.
That is not to say that personal changes are any substitute for activism. We all need to be activists however we can.
A fellow member of the Degrowth group brought up Jensen’s article the other day, and shared the following quote from the article. (I’ve shared the link to the full article for you at the end of this post):
“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”?
“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.
“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.”
For sure the above is true. That said:
What collecting rainwater, and radically reducing one’s energy consumption, and doing without a car if possible, and minimizing housing cost and footprint etc etc etc, can do Is help us get out from under the system that we’re trying to change.
And if we are less vulnerable to the systems, have less to lose, then we are more able to be outspoken and try to change the systems.
People who can’t afford to speak against the system, people who are stuck in the system, are the ones that we are trying to help.
Also, a personal sense of peace is very helpful in activism. I’m talking about genuine personal peace, not spiritual bypassing.
Also, although my tiny individual actions don’t add up to much, the fact is that personal practices can be very contagious. And that kind of contagion can be an onramp for social trends, which can definitely lead to massive change.
Another important thing is that when we are fully living our values, or as close to it as we are able to manage in the current system, we get a certain power. Maybe a good phrase for it would be moral influence.
The climate deniers, ultra-far-right nationalists, etc., are very often living by their stated values and in accordance with their stated beliefs.
Meanwhile, many of us who call ourselves environmentalist, Degrowthers, Permaculturists, etc. are falling very far short of our stated beliefs and values.
We claim to believe that climate change is an extremely urgent matter. Ditto ecosystems restoration. And social justice … etc.
And yet: So many “eco” people continue to jetset all over the planet (including my personal favorite, flying to climate conferences, flying to permaculture classes and nature festivals in exotic overseas locations and that kind of thing). Constantly fly across continents & oceans to visit their families (rather than, say, move to be near their families), hoard land & extra houses, continue to keep their money on Wall Street, etc.
And there’s a certain unease that goes with not really living up to our values because we’re afraid of the consequences. And that unease gets transmitted, I think. It makes us less influential.
It starts to make sense that the environmental movement is not as persuasive as it could be. We are more persuasive when we are living more closely in tune with what we claim to believe.
In everyday life, it’s extremely hard to be fully in integrity with environmental beliefs. I am constantly feeling guilty about the amount of plastic packaging I end up accepting. And industrial factory food when it’s very hard to get ethically raised local food etc. etc. And buying consumer products that end up not being the best use of my money even though I thought they were going to be useful.
Each of us has some areas of consumption that we probably find easier to cut than other areas, and other aspects that we find harder. Obviously people living in cities will find it easier to do without a car, for example. Or share a car.
But there’s a lot that people can do still. And I’m always devastated when I see some fellow permaculture person tearing up a bunch of rural land to build a giant house. Or taking up a huge amount of acreage for just one or two people. Or gentrifying other countries because the cost-of-living is cheaper there.
We’re supposed to be setting the example.
Our personal behaviors do matter even though there is no substitute for systemic activism. I actually find it easier to do one if I’m doing the other also.
Maybe part of our role as degrowth activists and other eco-folk is to help and nurture each other so that we can ease our fears of letting go of harmful systems & behaviors. It can definitely feel very vulnerable to let go of things such as retirement accounts etc. Mutual aid may be a very under-explored area for a lot of us.
PS. A prime example of “the power that comes from beneath” is the retirement accounts of millions of middle-class people. We find it easy to decry the morality of millionaires and billionaires and corporations — but don’t seem to want to notice how we ourselves are propping them up.
• Go here to read Jensen’s piece in its entirety: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2009/07/08/forget-shorter-showers-why-personal-change-does-not-equal-political-change