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Forget Shorter Showers – why personal change does not equal political change

July 27, 2009

The blog title is not mine – it’s drawn from an article by Derrick Jensen in the latest 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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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    July 27, 2009 22:17

    My first reaction was to dismiss this out of hand. I find Jensen to be a very frustrating writer– he focuses on what won’t work, and rarely on what will; in what I’ve read of him.

    The essay got my goat because I thought he was indulging in black-white thinking; and often seems to.

    My take is that small things lead to big things, and big things never happen without small things.

    I’m definitely a political person. I think it’s important to use all the first amendment rights, including the right of assembly and protest, as well as written and spoken speech, blogs, printing, etc.

    Rather than get into a squabble ( I think Derrick likes a attention, and likes it when he starts arguments), I’d like to thank you for taking a
    stand– one that might be a bit challenging to some of your clients (my critique of the LOHAS world is that they often seem so apolitical and unpolitical– I imagine that bugs you, too).

    I remain unconvinced that Derrick is a contructive problem-solver, but I don’t think that of you. In fact, you seem to occupy a unique niche.

    And perhaps we can share our views on a theory of change– addressing
    the points that Derrick raised, in my view overly-provocatively. I think Bill Moyer, in his Movement Action Plan, laid a good scenario of how change happens.http://bit.ly/11V7Xx
    And an Australian site at
    http://bit.ly/Z42kb

    as for this:
    … 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.

    The role of an activist is to dismantle the oppressive system, and not replace it with something else oppressive.

    Those who imply guns, bombs and violence are cool all too often want be in charge of those items, and never let go. This has been a loud theme of those who supported Khomeini in 1979, thinking that freedom would follow. It didn’t, and now they want an open civil society with freedom of assembly and expression; free of the Basiji who were 20 in ’79 and now corrupt with oil money.

    • August 1, 2009 19:46

      I particularly appreciate the distinction that:

      “the role of the activist is to dismantle the oppressive system, and not replace it with something else oppressive”.

      Am familiar with the work of Bill Moyer, and as much as I laud the efforts of the non-violence movement, I am also inclined to believe that there is something deeply biological about strong – sometimes violent – responses to oppression.

      The further out we get from responding to incremental whittling away at our basic human rights – fundamentally our right to survive – the more likely it is that there will be a forceful correction required. Violence is certainly not the answer, and yet when all else fails, direct action is.

      Having been involved in eco-terrorism activities some years ago, I can appreciate that there can come a time when a certain type of action might be required in order to initiate change – and that the unwillingness to engage in strong action (what by many definitions would be deemed ‘violent’) can be, in itself, an oppressive way of approaching change.

  2. July 28, 2009 22:00

    Cameron,

    I love this train of thought. I just find political processes cumbersome & frustrating.

    Personal change feeds into the political process & one cannot introduce new laws or change old ones without popular support.

    Politics is completely reactive. Politicians respond to public sentiment. Public sentiment is influenced by media, marketing & popular culture.

    Lots of positive feedback loops…

    I admire the direct action taken by the Northbridge6 & the Drax29. We probably need a lot more of the same. I suspect we need a Sea Shephard type organisation to use the same type of direct action used against whalers & apply similar tactics to coal fired power stations.

    However, I do not think we can discount or write off the need or the influence of personal change…..

    In SE QLD there has be long lasting & permanent behavioural changes brought about by 7 years of unprecendented drought, combined with water restrictions & mass education campaigns.

    It gives me hope that it is possible to do the same with energy. It may even be possible to drive ecologically sustainable development (adopted as Government policy but yet to manifest in reality).

    I also suspect my mum as an educator (an extraordinary educator) has had more influence on political processes than my brother did as a Member of the Legislative Assembly.

    Ro

    • August 1, 2009 19:52

      “… I do not think we can discount or write off the need or the influence of personal change …”

      Agreed! It’s simply that ‘personal change’ needs to occur across all spectrums of our influence, including the political.

      There are allowances within our constitution – not surprisingly – that permit constituents to force the resignation of their political representatives if all other avenues fail.

      Yet when do citizens – Australian citizens particularly – get motivated enough to do something about it? They prefer to get together around coffee tables and in online forums to bewail the state of the world, yet rarely do they take the necessary actions to force change.

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