Why personal change does not equal political change
by Derrick Jensen / Deep Green Resistance
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.
Originally published in Orion.
Another splendid writing by Mr. Jensen.
Really like his words and his thoughts on things. And maybe he don’t want to be seen as one, but I find him to be one of the more important Philosophers of modern times.
We can’t destroy the entire ecosphere, and perhaps that’s the key to acceptance. Maybe our species is just here to pave the way for an actual, intelligent species. We’re going to destroy most of the Earth’s biodiversity and ourselves along with it, but in 100 million years this will be long restored. And perhaps there will be a species able to flourish intelligently because we’ve taken the guns away (i.e. fossil fuels). This might be the most noble purpose our species can serve – blindly sacrificing ourselves for the good of intelligence in general.
I say this because evolution is going to create vicious, collective machines – that’s what our species is. I’m not saying give up on an organized solution, but this may be literally impossible given the stranglehold a neurological subset of the population has on everything. If this is the case then we can at least see our species as having cleared the way for something beautiful to emerge because we’ve taken terrible power from them.
I’m not following the argument. Are you suggesting that the industrial economy would still carry on if people, living simply, didn’t choose to buy industrial products and were able to directly meet their own needs instead? If so, what incentive would there be to keep the destruction going? Maybe a few tycoons, but where would the social pyramid be underneath to support them? Industralism is impersonal, not a self directed force and so needs a demand from us individuals to survive. I’m probably not the only one confused by your article and would really apprecite some clarification. Thanks!
Well, the question isn’t whether industrialism couldn’t survive without people buying its products because so long as industrialism’s products are made available to a consumer class, that class will buy them. There is no way, apart from an absurdly theoretical sense, that won’t happen. The power of industrial civilization doesn’t derive from the sum of individual buying choices; it derives from an deliberate arrangement of dependence on its products (chiefly agricultural food) and servitude to its economies. Tell a desperately poor working class person they can’t buy gas to get to work to feed her/his family; this approach has no leverage, no chance of success. We encourage you to continue studying the problem. Many of us were in exactly the same ideological bind at some time or other.
Well, but, there is an equal ideological bind of believing that personal practice is irrelevant because all meaningful change rests with some vast, evil other “out there.” In most successful social mobilizations of the past century or so, personal transformations have worked synergistically with structural ones. Moreover, personal sacrifice tends to bind people to social movements longterm.
Some forms of agricultural food are depended upon BUT do we really need animal agriculture? Probably the most pressing concerns for climate change/global warming is animal agriculture and that is something that is HUGELY affected by personal choice. Animal agriculture is creating more than just carbon emissions…also methane and nitrous oxide…far more crippling than carbon emissions. Animal agriculture is also the major reason for water depletion, contamination, and a whole list of other scary things. If people made the personal choice to stop eating meat-particularly beef, the supply for animal agriculture could be reduced significantly and therefore climate change and global warming reduced….I agree with the article that shorter showers will do very little…especially when 1 burger is equivalent to 2 months worth of showers. There definitely needs to be way more education on this though…one person’s choice to eat less meat or to be vegan or vegetarian won’t prevent the billions from eating meat…with education/leadership of those in power-this can and must change! http://youtu.be/2gHn4NvrF5s
Yep! Well said, Morgan!
You are absolutely right. With how perceptive, intelligent, and clearly right the author and comments are, no one has mentioned the elephant in the room. Being vegan, protesting, educationing, being an advocate for this
particular social change should be top priority. Bringing down these big company’s should be first on all of our to do lists to help this earth recover/ survive, way before buying hybrids and taking shorter showers!
Keep in mind also that living ‘off the grid’ is illegal in many areas. You must be hooked up to water waste disposal, solid waste disposal and have electricity. In some areas, it is illegal to grow your own food in your front yard, for example – or you may not have space to grow your own food (apartment living). you can fight the system, but in many instances, you would just wind up in jail. The shift would have to be top-down in some cases. I have seen people win some of these battles and I get very excited from each victory. Our personal decisions may not shift the everything unless we are willing and able to put it all on the line (including our life), but our personal decision may spur more personal decisions and click something in someone else who may be willing and able to put everything on the line. Even at that, like you said… we are not likely to give up electricity, running water or store-bought food. Our population is such that we could not feasibly go ‘off the grid’ anyway. Like it or not, we need some of the aspects of community living and government to manage our water and waste. It’s a cycle and won’t change with any kind of speed. Thank you for concisely sharing your views. I think that they are spot on.
He avoids the real root of the problem which is human overpopulation. Re-education about reducing the birth rate is what needs be done. It isn’t corporations but religion and social structure that are the problem. The push to over-reproduce needs to be stoppe, not encouraged which is what these institutions do, following ancient traditions that connects numbers and power.
Over population. Period. Survival stress. Greed. Hoarding resources. It’s all over population. The loss of personal responsibility. Someone else will come up with the easy and painless solution. Blame everyone else.
It’s time for every person, even the corporate heads to change. Sadly, it’s gone too far. I am not optimistic.
Yes yes yes. A thousand times yes. As has been said elsewhere a large number of people making a small difference will make a small difference in a large system.
Solutions at this scale need to be structural, individual is also fine and is to be applauded and supported but without the structural change we won’t get the change we need.
Also plant a tree.
I get his point, but sadly this piece is full of dangerous logical misdirects. For instance: composting wouldn’t have ended slavery.
Duh. And agreed.
But no abolitionist would have held slaves or supported the slave trade–and that is the better analogy.
The climate crisis is essentially a crisis of resources. How they are controlled and how they are used. Which means that EVERY part of the problem is BOTH a supply side and a demand side issue. Unless there is a radical reduction in the human pop, eg, we can’t solve the water problem without moving toward plant-based diets. So, one way or another, people are going to have to move toward plant-based diets. It’s actually one area where personal consumption decisions, if made as part of a movement, could have a world-changing effect. But more to the point, whatever we do *structurally* to make it more onerous to produce and market meat/dairy will have to be reflected among consumers. We have to learn how to eat differently.
The anti-smoking movement couldn’t just target Big Tobacco (though that was essential). People had to learn not to smoke.
It’s also a question of identity and commitment. Mainstream environmentalists tend to be folks who have never been involved with any of the social movements they love to cite. It makes them a little clueless on the dynamics of participation. As it turns out you don’t get people to commit longterm to movements by making sure that it’s all easy to do and that it’s always and only *someone else* who needs to change. As sociological studies suggest, personal sacrifice is key to longterm social movement participation. Meanwhile, personal change goes hand in hand–it works synergistically–with increasing dedication to a cause.
So yeah, you have to target power structures. But the idea that, meh, it doesn’t really matter in the end how each of us handles resources, in a struggle that is all about resources? That would be like saying it doesn’t matter how participants in the struggle to reform the racist criminal justice system deal with matters of race in their hearts and heads and in their daily lives.
Finally, in a movement that has so many fronts where change is needed, personal commitments can shift practice in institutional arenas. Consider, eg, how many professional conferences cause folks to fly great distances, making for vast and needless carbon emissions. So many of these could be transformed into video conferences or other more logical formats, if even a couple/few of the professionals involved with organizing each one had personal commitments to curtailing travel by air and were brave enough to speak up.
What nonsense. Individual actions are the only things that matter.
If I choose not to buy a widget and everyone else choose not to buy a widget then no widgets will be produced.
Governments, corporations and military are responding to individual choices. Things are made and actions taken on our behalf because through enough individual choices to have things made or actions taken.
To conclude that your choices will have no affect or benefit guarantees failure and despair.
Is it really feasible to expect people to not buy “widgets”? How would you convince people not to buy a smartphone if their job depends upon having one? Same goes for our dependence upon agriculture – expecting people to produce their own food (or only buy from small farms) is not feasible for anyone but a few who 1) have land and 2) have the time to farm it (i.e. do not hold another job). I believe that in many ways we *are* forced into consumption; many of us lack the luxury of having a choice of whether or not to “buy a widget.”
“Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. ” According to USGS, domestic water use in the US (that is, water delivered to homes) in 2010 was 27 billion gallons per day. Golf courses were 1. Municipal human beings use 27 times more water than all golf courses, and not even just the municipal golf courses.
Also: “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].” This is not true. 26% of carbon emissions is from transportation (all of it), 12% is residential and commercial, and 9% is agriculture. 30% of emissions is from electricity, of which residential uses 37%, commercial uses 35%, and industry uses 27%. All of these sectors could stand to reduce their emissions substantially, to great effect.
To your comment about the weak-sauce impact of reducing household waste: the actions that would result in a zero-waste household will have a profound effect on the way the household consumes everything. These secondary impacts are huge and should be considered before you use it (and any of these other incorrect statements) to dismiss the notion of personal responsibility.
Thanks for the comment. Could you provide a link or other reference for your data?
It sounds like Korrigan’s data is for the US, based on EPA stats.
Guys the article is fantastic… Lets get busy. .. You dont like his idea fine use yours. .. The real problem is the inability of humans to agree for the greater good inspite of their own opinion….
But, we do vote.
Or what if all humans suddenly becomes born infertile, which means we as a species will go into extinction, not because of some catastrophic event, but because we simply die out and not reproduce. And imagine how the last generation prepare the earth for their departure: setting all animals free to once again flourish
I hope not! Search “Mink Scotland” for why that is a terrible idea.
Agree the solution is ditching industrial capitalism. I must say, however, ONE collective consumer change that would significantly make differences in terms of energy usage, water availability, pollution, deforestation, human health, etc… is a vegan diet. It would happen if tax payer subsidies to the meat/dairy/ sugar/processed food industries were ditched because folks wouldn’t be able to afford the true cost of a burger ($200). A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture according to Worldwatch Institute. A 2013 Loma Linda University study found vegans have a greenhouse -gas footprint 41.7 percent smaller than meat-eaters.
Then the other collective solution is population control…I’m sure you know when women come out of poverty, they have less children. Again another reason to ditch capitalism since it breeds & exploits poverty.
opps I blogged before reading other comments advocating vegan diet and population control. Yes collectively these two things could/would change society for the better.
“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.”
It sounds like you’re calling for the people to revolt and overthrow the ruling class. Am I correct?
It’s true that if all of us lived a very low impact existence, that would make a big difference to our global problems. However, I think Derrick makes the valid point that the majority of us are not going to cheerfully give up all the shiny exciting products of a global technological civilisation. If we’re offered iPads, cars, big houses, high-tech healthcare, exotic food all year round, and so on, most of us will take those things without thinking of the long-term consequences. You can’t make people care. Like someone I know said recently, when it was suggested that she ought to turn off the printer at the end of the day to save electricity and greenhouse gas emissions:
“Could. Not. Care. Less”
Or someone else who cheerfully acknowledged that the production of foie gras involves terrible cruelty to animals, but wasn’t planning to stop eating it because:
“It just tastes so good!”.
You can’t make people care, especially about long-term global problems vs. immediate personal gratification. And who is going to vote for a politician who promises hardship and declining standards of living rather than growth and prosperity?
Trouble is, there is no gentle way out of this, no easy transition to an indefinitely sustainable human civilisation. If you take away all the underpinnings of our current system, you will have collapse, resource wars, disease, massive die-off of the population.
I was hoping that this article might have an answer to this predicament, but it didn’t, and I think that’s because there isn’t one.
Hi John (and a belated reply to Tyler),
Yeah, there’s no easy solution to our predicament. The closest we can come in an honest evaluation of where we’re at, what we can reasonably expect people to do, how many people might be willing to take serious action, and what strategy has a realistic chance of success given those starting points.
The Deep Green Resistance book weighs all that, and comes to a conclusion close to what Tyler guessed. But rather than a revolt to overthrow the ruling class, the DGR strategy comes down to making global industrialism and fossil fuels simply unavailable, forcing people to make the necessary changes before this culture causes complete environmental devastation.
It’d be ideal to shut down the fossil fuel economy through mass nonviolent civil disobedience, but that’s not realistic. The book evaluates the numbers of participants required for historical and contemporary resistance, and formulates a strategy of Decisive Ecological Warfare (DEW). This strategy depends heavily on a relatively small underground of activists carrying out strategic decisive attacks on critical infrastructure.
I highly recommend reading at least the chapter on DEW , and ideally the entire Deep Green Resistance book. Portions of the book address the dilemmas related to collapse, resource wars and die-off. Again, there’s no easy and clean solution, but at this point we have to pursue the next best option, whatever we (individually and as a movement) decide that to be.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight and we’re not getting out of it overnight either, despite the fact that those of us here want to. Regular people are not going to make major sacrifices or take exceptional measures, because they’re not exceptional by definition. But we can and should all make at least some effort, like organizing your life so you don’t have to drive regularly, then giving up your car, and like limiting your biological family to one child. The changes needed can only happen incrementally because modern humans are so used to all this unnatural stuff like electricity and driving, but we can slowly wean ourselves off of this if we try. Ending industrial society could happen in 150-200 years if people make the effort.
The causes of these problems are huge and fundamental, and those are the changes needed, both personally and societally. It’s not “either or,” it’s both. If people aren’t willing to make personal changes, societal ones won’t happen either. Being hypocritical and/or just making excuses for failing to consume a lot less, live more simply, and limit your family to one child, will prevent any major societal changes from happening. As Gandhi said, be the change you want to see. Anything less is hypocrisy and unacceptable.