All your personal efforts to live more sustainably do not make any difference to the world’s environment.
That’s the assertion environmental writer Derrick Jensen makes in his recent article “Forget Shorter Showers,” published in Orion magazine.
The industrial economy is so large, and so much the source of our planet’s environmental woes, Jensen argues, that even if all individuals reduced their carbon footprint to zero, climate change and other catastrophes would still ravage the earth due to industry’s large-scale harm. If industry is the one clear, hulking threat to our species’ – and all species’ – future survival, then why on earth do we all content ourselves with recycling, composting and taking shorter showers?
Jensen believes this is insanity: “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…?” his article begins.
Yet this “insanity” is something to which most all of us subscribe. We teach school children to turn off lights when they’re not using them, run public awareness campaigns to stress no lawn watering during droughts, and our governments offer tax incentives to individuals who buy energy efficient appliances. Quite comically, a recent public service announcement produced in Brazil urges everyone to pee while showering so they won’t waste water flushing the toilet afterward.
But despite all these efforts to make individuals change their ways to save the planet, the fact remains that a vast majority of energy, water and other resources are consumed by bigger players: corporations, agribusiness, governments, militaries, and industrial transportation. And in turn, these big players also emit the vast majority of greenhouse gasses, Jensen states.
Why do we believe we can make a difference?
Jensen thinks our capitalist, consumerist societies have duped us into believing all our power lies in the dollars we spend and the individual actions we take as consumers. If you buy low-flush toilets, for example, you believe you are encouraging production of more low-flush toilets and increasing the likelihood that more consumers will also choose low-flush toilets and thereby save the world a lot of water. While consumer trends can and do sometimes direct the tide of a particular industry, such as the recent surge in organic food products due to customer demand, oftentimes this is simply not enough to halt an industry’s irreversible and widespread environmental damage.
In truth, individuals are capable of affecting change with far more than just their wallets. Voting, protesting, lobbying, and boycotting are just a few such actions that Jensen points out. But at the end of the day, aren’t we all looking for tangible and easily accomplished ways to make a difference today? Isn’t that why individual acts of sustainable living appeal to us all – and why we sometimes forego the more aggressive or radical acts that can require years of time and energy to accomplish even modest gains? While personal acts might make us feel better now, Jensen’s bottom line is this: “Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”
Be the change you wish to see in the world?
Those who would oppose Jensen’s position argue that living sustainably is an extremely important act, and that every large-scale social change begins at the grassroots level with individuals who are willing to change their own behaviors as a model for others. For example, Rosa Parks and the many other opponents of American racial segregation didn’t begin by directly attacking the large-scale social system that enabled discrimination; rather, both black and white opponents of segregation began by living their values of equality every day and leading by example. In time, the movement grew – as will the sustainable living revolution.
While some may agree with Jensen that industry is certainly a large-scale enemy of the global environment, they are equally adamant that change must begin with each individual deciding to live by the values to which they plan on holding others (such as industrial leaders) accountable. And yes, in the face of such large global problems, there is some comfort in taking your own daily actions, however modest, to help save the world.
What do you think?
Are personal decisions to live more sustainably worth the effort? Should we instead focus our environmental efforts on affecting widespread changes to the industrial economy?
– Jennifer Colletti