Cutting the A/C & Powering Down: Do our personal changes matter at all?

BlogHer Original Post

I'm depressed. Down in the dumps. Anxious and overwhelmed. For over two years I've focused on personal change: eliminating disposable plastic from my life, reducing my energy consumption, and living as simply as possible. But when I step out my front door, the evidence of overconsumption and waste smacks me squarely in the head: piles of trash, pallets of cheap plastic crap, plastic bags and bottles and packaging. Turning on the TV, I am bombarded by messages to Buy. More. Stuff!

Are any of my individual actions making any difference in the bigger picture at all?

Last month, about twenty different people forwarded me an article by Derrick Jensen in Orion Magazine, "Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change." I resisted reading it because I feared it would cause me to question the personal actions I've been engaged in and promoting on my blog. But in the last few weeks, I've come to the point of questioning the efficacy of personal change on my own. So I figured, how could it hurt? Living in denial of the bigger picture certainly doesn't help. Despite the logical fallacies and blatant hyperbole that characterize his first paragraph,

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...

Jensen goes on to make some important points:

1) Taking shorter showers will not solve the global water crisis when individuals only use about 10% of available water and the rest is consumed by agriculture and industry.

2) Reducing our personal energy consumption is not enough when the vast majority is used for commercial, industrial, corporate, agribusiness and government interests.

3) Cutting our own personal waste is not enough when municipal waste accounts for only 3% of the total waste production in the United States.

4) Shifting our personal spending within our current destructive industrial economy will not be enough to reverse the environmental damage wrought by that very economy.

Jensen goes on to explain,

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's right that all of our personal changes will not reverse the destruction of our environment without massive political and social change as well. But (and this is a BIG BUT) where does he think the will for political change comes from in the first place?

Last November, I criticized a statement made by Obama that "we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective." I responded:

Changing lightbulbs can help to change people's minds. Changing lightbulbs is a gateway action that can lead to other kinds of changes: changing the way a person votes, for example. Individual actions help to create awareness, and it's awareness that creates the climate for political change. Because WE are the government. And the government doesn't change unless we do.

Each act of change we make as individuals creates a greater personal investment in the outcomes of those actions. We first make changes for ourselves. We feel like we are doing our part. We learn that all of us are responsible for creating a healthy world. And then we come to understand, as I have, that while those actions are important for us as humans, they are not enough to ensure our survival as a species. If we care about that (and there are some who actually don't) we have to do more. But how can we go further if we haven't taken those first personal steps?

In a reaction to a comment on her blog, Green LA Girl Siel writes,

I do think that essay makes some good points, but one thing I wish it focused on more is that often, it’s the personal changes that actually lead people to get involved politically. I began with taking shorter showers, then got curious about the bigger issues about water in California, then wrote a post about it and have been getting more involved with the issue....

Personal change and political change are hardly mutually exclusive — The two really work in conjunction with each other. I think it’s the very people who start off taking shorter showers who push for laws like the water conservation mandates that went into effect in L.A., that helped convince the judge who made the ruling that farmers need to conserve water because salmon need water too.

Other bloggers have been tackling this issue as well. Kendra Langdon Juskus from Flourish criticizes Jensen's article from a religious perspective, and questions his assumptions about human beings' potential for both acts of creation as well as destruction. And she too makes the connection between our personal actions and the greater good they can lead to:

I do not read my Bible simply in order to feel at peace or pleased about my day. I read my Bible so that my small, personal disciplines may inform how I interact with others, and how I participate in God’s plan for his world. A similar trajectory may be the culmination of personal disciplines like taking shorter showers in a more effective act like restoring a watershed with other conservationists. But to say that small steps are meaningless is to dissuade people not only from those small, individual disciplines, but also from the greater fruits they may bear.

Megan Dietz of The Sunny Way finds fault with Jensen's premise that nothing less than dismantling our current model of civilization is needed to solve our environmental problems:

Jensen is taking a vast leap. Our problems are not industry and capitalism; our problems are carbon emissions, wasted resources, and inequality. Rather than ripping down the whole system—which has brought unprecedented wealth, health, and education to millions of people—why not put our energies into recreating that system so that waste, emissions, and inequality are no longer a part of it? Isn’t there a chance that our ingenuity and creativity and capacity for growth can save us from the problems created by less developed versions of our ingenuity and creativity and capacity for growth?


Taking a shorter shower might not appreciably change the world, but developing ourselves—our creativity and our sense of care for the whole of creation, oceans and industries and everything in between—certainly does. For it is only in embracing ever-broader points of view that we can see clearly enough to create new ways of living and thinking.

Elise Ertel from the journal Elephant argues that shifting consumer spending actually does make a bigger difference than Jensen imagines:

If we are really intent on making a statement and sparking change, we need to disrupt the economic flow. The little things (your decision to buy recycled toilet-paper or start riding your bike to work) send the loudest message. Every small decision you make effect the bottom line of corporations. If they see that consumers are no longer willing to impact the environment by driving high-emissions vehicles, they will change. Believe me when I say that the Prius was not created because Toyota has a soft spot for the environment. Businesses react to the demands of consumers.

This might be good news for Candace Uhlmeyer of Owl's Farm who laments one of the major obstacles to political involvement: personal exhaustion.

I spend much of my time thinking about how I can lower my own impact on the environment, but my participation in anything political is limited to buying my electricity from Green Mountain or using Credo wireless service for my husband's cell phone....

Now that I'm into my seventh decade on this planet, and beholden to economically and environmentally expensive technologies for my very existence (not to mention my never-ending dependence on the pharmaceutical industry to keep my arteries unclogged and my blood flowing properly), I am deeply troubled by the fact that I like my life inside the old wire fence of our little compound; I like my job, even though I've sold out to America's odd notion of corporate-based, for-profit education. But the idea of spending my limited free time in further activism (beyond my considerable involvement when I was younger) is nearly unthinkable. I'm just tired.

I'm tired too. But unlike Uhlmeyer, I'm only into my 5th decade, not 7th, and I'd like to think I still have energy to get out there and stir things up (with the help of some fair trade organic caffeine.)

Fortunately, college student Jinnie from Real Gators Are Green has the youth, energy, and spirit to focus on both personal and political actions. She enthuses:

Is it still important to reduce, reuse and recycle? Of course. Little things do help a little bit. That plastic bag you recycle instead of throwing into the trash could be the plastic bag that would have otherwise killed a fish or a whale. Maybe it's just for my own peace of mind, but I still like to think that one person can make a difference. But in order for one person to make a difference, we have to gain support for a cause, and we have to be active. So, stop reading (yes, I'm telling you to stop reading my blog...) and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Maybe being overwhelmed and depressed by the seeming ineffectiveness of our personal actions is not a bad thing IF it causes us to rethink our strategies and emboldens us to take bigger steps.

Of course, writing a blog is one way to increase the impact of our personal choices by inspiring others to make similar changes and take action.

Or maybe the small steps we each make to shift our spending to "greener" companies within the corporate industrial structure is enough.

What do you think? Please take a moment to read Jensen's article. Are you willing to go further than personal actions?  Why or why not?


Beth Terry writes about finding creative ways to reduce her plastic consumption and plastic waste at Fake Plastic Fish and encourages others to join the fun. We only have one planet. Let's enjoy it instead of cluttering it up with more plastic crap!  



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