July 18, 2011

Forget Shorter Showers—why Personal Change doesn’t Equal Political Change.

I wrote this several years ago; however, at the time, elephant wasn’t really the write place to publish it. Forget Shorter Showers recently published here speaks to the same point (from a seemingly diametrically opposed perspective) and inspired me to dust it off …


The blog title is not mine – it’s drawn from an article by Derrick Jensen in the November ’09 issue of Orion Magazine – the thinking person’s sustainability journal if ever I’ve seen one.

Jensen asks:

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”?

Jensen’s article – one of the first of many I hope to see along this line – makes a clear and compelling case as to why consumer activism (for all it’s usefulness) is a shockingly incomplete and narcissistic practice when not coupled with direct political engagement.

Jensen is not disparaging of individual change – nor is he suggesting that we not ‘live simply’ – he is simply suggesting that the current focus on shifting individual consumption patterns in order to influence the state of the world is bound to fail.

His central argument is that, in the face of the monumental challenges we are currently dealing with, simply deciding to ‘go green’ is no substitute for political engagement. Especially when “more than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry“, and “municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production” (in the United States at least).

Further, Jensen certainly does not criticize individual power – in fact, he is a strong proponent of it – merely suggesting that political change comes, not surprisingly, by engaging with politics as opposed to purchasing recycled toilet paper.

The most common argument posited in favour of consumer action over political action is that governments are lazy, corrupt, and unduly influenced by corporate interests – that we need change fast and that the only way this is going to happen is by bypassing the legislature (as if LOHAS is somehow going to save the world).

Yet, according to Thomas Jefferson:

“The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.”

Cynicism about the current state of our governments negates the immense potential inherent in a democracy when citizens engage meaningfully and consistently with the political process – rather than throwing their hands in the air and declaring that ‘it’s all too hard’.

The history of change generated through political action requires no exposition here – the list is too long, too varied, and too hackneyed to  reiterate.

Jensen is opening an important discussion about the nature of democracy and stating, loudly and uncompromisingly, that driving a hybrid car, recycling or taking shorter showers, is a far cry from the revolution the world at large seems to be in need of.

As Jensen says:

... 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.

Vive le Revolution!

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