Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change – Derrick Jensen


July 15, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, North California

[We often hear about change starting from within.  We change ourselves and it manifests outward in ripples that begin change for the world.  But the reality is that no matter how virtuous we are as individuals, or think we are, effective change needs to be systemic.  Ecologist Derrick Jensen is circulating an essay making that point – we need to go after corporate power to create real change.  And it’s dangerous, but necessary. -AE]

[Todd Walton and Annie exchange comments about this article in the Comments section below. Your thoughts? -DS]

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.
Derrick Jensen will be appearing on Els Cooperrider’s KZYX program The Reality Report, Monday, July 27th, 9am.



These arguments are as old as the hills and rife with self-righteous ignorance, and they don’t survive even modest scrutiny, especially in light of what has happened since the economic meltdown began a year ago. Consumption of gasoline and natural resources are Way Down and demand for oil is dropping. That’s because individuals and the corporations who serve/rob them are using much less. If we had a fair and non-criminal stock exchange, oil would be trading at 20 dollars a barrel and the market would be three thousand points lower than it is. Even so, corporations selling junk are going out of business right and left because individuals aren’t buying enough crap anymore. The behavior of individuals has an enormous impact because individual behavior accounts for much of the totals he ascribes to corporations. It is a classic error to figure the two as separate. Agribusiness uses all our water because individuals buy crap grown and sold by agribusiness. This guy believes voting makes more of a difference than consuming less? Oh, really? We all voted for Obama and a Congress that is now rubber stamping criminal trillion dollar giveaways to crooks, funding the expansion of the military and illegal wars abroad while cutting essential services, and codifying the worst fascist laws of the Bushies. He’s right that we the people could become much more overtly rebellious, and I think that will happen. I predicted Obama would win and that he would do all the wrong things as he has, and that things would get worse and worse until conditions provoke massive civil unrest and Obama and his Goldman Sachs cronies are forced to make necessary changes and concessions. I still think that’s what we’re seeing unfolding. Sadly, things have to get really bad for enough individuals to change their behaviors so things can actually change. This guy sounds desperate to exonerate the individual (himself) which is like exonerating all the millions of separate wiggling parts of a starfish. The many are one, the one is many. You can’t have one without the other. And the underlying problem is that we’ve got too many of the many. If individuals would stop having so many kids, many of our worst problems would be solved swiftly. Individuals make babies, corporations don’t.

Anyway, I rode my bike to town today rather than drive my truck and I felt God kiss me for lessening my carbon footprint.

I refer you to Jensen’s paragraph 7 “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.”

He does think people should live simply – and lives simply himself – and presumably gets kissed by god on a regular basis.

He’s just saying that it’s not enough to stop there. Unless you want a dead planet.

Incidentally, corporations do contribute to excess population. Poor people tend to have big families. Once people are inducted into the middle class, they self-limit their families. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it is true. So to see “our worst problems…solved quickly,” we need to give everyone an even break.

Our big agriculture gets u.s. gov’t subsidies and undercuts local agriculture around the world. This forces subsistence farmers out of business and is a direct cause of poverty. These are corporations we are talking about here.

Wow. Because this guy writes down the words “Personal change doesn’t equal social change”, that makes it so? Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez would certainly disagree entirely with his statement, and so do I. When individuals stopped buying lettuce and grapes from Safeway for years on end, we, the people, individuals all, made a huge difference. We changed, for a time, the world by changing our individual habits. And writing that living simply is not revolutionary in a culture designed 100% to encourage and support greed and consumption is nonsense. Of course, saying “I live simply” doesn’t necessarily make it so. Maybe that’s what has Derrick so adamant that he’s right and that so many other people are wrong. Maybe he knows a whole bunch of people talking the talk of simple living but not walking it. Maybe.

By the way, IGNORANT people tend to have big families, regardless of their wealth. Mel Gibson has eight kids. “Inducted into the middle class?” Yikes. Is that anything like being drafted into the military? Millions and millions of middle-class people need to have many fewer children, too. And I know many low-income people who have wisely chosen not to have children.

Our big agriculture, which is actually not just ours but supranational, gets subsidies because the people Derrick says we should vote for are crooks. And crooks are people. And corporations are run by people. General Motors the corporation is as good or as bad as the people running it. Ditto Blue Cross and Walmart and Chevron. As long as we focus on these non-human Transformer-like enemy entities called Corporations, we aren’t thinking clearly. Just as everybody focused their enmity on dimwit George Bush during his presidency, which only made his puppeteers laugh with glee, so do they laugh as we rail against the corporations. Believe me, I know firsthand of the evil and murderous power of certain corporate entities, but I don’t for a minute forget that these monsters are operated by amoral individual PEOPLE and these corporations exist because individuals buy what they’re selling.

California and America are bankrupt because a few hundred people, individuals, refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy while giving away all our hard earned wealth to their cronies. Now it would be so easy to say “It’s because of the corporations. They have rich and powerful lobbyists. It’s so unfair.” But that kind of rhetoric only shifts the focus away from the real criminals, those PEOPLE, those greedy, lazy, selfish individuals who, I guarantee you, would say, “You tell’em, Derrick Jensen. Tell them it doesn’t matter how they live their individual lives. Degrade their valiant attempts to live more lightly on the earth. Because that’s how we rule. By keeping the majority of people feeling like pathetic, powerless wimps. Tell them that no matter how hard they try to live more meaningful and regenerative lives, they’re just wasting their time.”

Unfortunately, Derrick is NOT just saying it’s not enough to live simply. He’s attacking that idea. He says, and you quoted him, “Personal change doesn’t equal social change.” And he is absolutely completely entirely wrong about that. Nothing equals social change more than personal change because that’s what social change is: personal change on a large collective scale.

There is an idea in Buddhism called Skillful Speech. It requires the speaker to say what he or she wishes to say without attacking or undermining the person or people being spoken to. I gather Monsieur Jensen hopes that by telling people they are wrong and misguided that they will become more aggressively revolutionary, or something. But his method is highly unskillful and alienating. As Buckminster Fuller advised, It is always better to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Otherwise we just alienate everyone who doesn’t already agree with us.

I fear I have not been as skillful as I might have been in replying to you and Derrick, but I’ve been hearing his arguments, verbatim, since the commune days of the early 1970’s when thousands of us proved to my satisfaction that individual change multiplied a thousandfold equals powerful social change. As far as I’m concerned, Derrick’s arguments do nothing to further the struggle that must start with each of us.