Changing Your Personal Consumption Isn’t Confronting The Problem

happy_familyFrom Orion Magazine, a classic essay from Derrick Jensen on the limits of living simply:

Why now 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 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.

We so often hear that the world is running out of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. But more than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Perceiving simple living as a political act 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. 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.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. But 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. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

16 Comments on "Changing Your Personal Consumption Isn’t Confronting The Problem"

  1. i think the essential argument of the article has weight. the individual ‘just looking after their own space’ as i seem to hear alot, in my eyes promotes a detachment from the widespread suffering caused by the larger entities mentioned in the article and shrinks down the area of individual responsibility to a comparatively small field.

    that being said, an individual sphere of affect has widespread consequences that reverberates through the planetary ball of strings. i think the issue is with the speed of affect rather than the area affected.

  2. MacroMondo | Mar 4, 2014 at 10:14 am |

    Living by example is your primary outlet for protest and catalyst for change. Living a good life well is proof of a working philosophy. Sometimes it is not enough and your message needs to be shouted from the rooftops or taken to the street but it is always a good start. Too many hypocrites in this world full of talk with no walk. Better to quietly lead a life worth emulating than to loudly preach hypocrisy.

    • Damien Quinn | Mar 4, 2014 at 10:55 am |

      -“Better to quietly lead a life worth emulating than to loudly preach hypocrisy.”

      If you mean that it is better to have no impact than to have a slightly negative impact, you’re probably right. I don’t believe those are the only two options.

      Is it not still better to live an exemplary life loudly? Ghandi would have just been another sexual predator if he hadn’t been inclined to publicise his non-violent protest actions.

  3. doodahman | Mar 4, 2014 at 11:34 am |

    Nice rationalization of NIMBY. There is so much wrong with this nonsense it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe the hypocrisy angle; or the “sum of the parts” angle. Or the “talk is cheap” angle. Either way, one question arises with this “philosophy”: “If we don’t do it, who else will”?

  4. Thurlow Weed | Mar 4, 2014 at 11:41 am |

    Ain’t nobody got time for dilettantes!

  5. BuzzCoastin | Mar 4, 2014 at 12:08 pm |

    But 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. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

    when an individual drops out of the matrix
    it is a powerful political & revolutionary act
    especially since it’s so rare an occurrence
    being half in & half out is good, but not revolutionary
    clinging to the herd gives power to the herd
    in reality
    you can be in it & not of it

    since wee are all interconnected socially
    droping out is powerful action against the status quo
    which is why the matrix works so hard
    to seduce & cajole the sheeple into it’s flock

    • Abbie Hoffman | Mar 5, 2014 at 12:55 am |

      You should check out Seattle. The whole flock has dropped out. But because everyone is content to recycle and ride bikes instead of taking on real political power, we are neutered in making any change to stop global warming, or steering humanity to not use up the last of our resources.

      • kowalityjesus | Mar 5, 2014 at 1:13 am |

        Not reproducing is also a form of political concession.

      • BuzzCoastin | Mar 5, 2014 at 1:34 am |

        Abbie ilove you & learned a lot from you
        did anything change since Chicago?
        weren’t you neutered after Chicago?
        your death taught me that bypass beats confrontation
        when dealing with da man

    • kowalityjesus | Mar 5, 2014 at 1:25 am |

      I can’t seriously agree. In the practical realm, it is more efficacious to be known as an inside weirdo than unknown as an outside weirdo. It is a different matter if we were addressing the numinous, and that might be somehow more important, but not reliably imo.

      • BuzzCoastin | Mar 5, 2014 at 1:39 am |

        the best the average aMerkin can hope for
        is high Outer Party membership
        but you got play the game their way to get there
        reflect upon Jimmy Carter
        he was a weirdo insider
        went nowhere fast

  6. emperorreagan | Mar 4, 2014 at 12:14 pm |

    I stopped reading one of his books in the middle several years ago and it took me a little reflection to figure out why: he’s an authoritarian. And the majority of people are just fools to be discarded, as the enlightened few hasten the collapse of civilization.

    So of course no personal change is worthy – imposition of a his disaster/utopian green fantasy world is is all that he is interested in. And his response to critiques of his philosophy/writing or his group’s actions and policies is generally to engage in ad hominem attacks.

    • Jin The Ninja | Mar 4, 2014 at 4:44 pm |

      i’ll admit i like jensen’s writings in some ways. i like the narrative style, i like the content.

      however you are absolutely correct.
      nihlism and vehement misanthropy are not a cocktail to revolution, radical or otherwise.

      i say this as a minor misanthrope.

      and while i do think he makes some interesting observations about a post-apocalyptic utopian world,
      i canNOT reconcile that world with my humanist (buddhist, neo-platonic, metaphysical or otherwise) values of compassion, logic and virtue. and i would hope that anarchists of any stripe can agree that society should be in accordance to at the least a variation of the secular humanist theme.

      bookchin, was a eco- anarcho writer who took the complete opposite view to jensen. he believed in the potential to create a radical space that was both post -civ and yet embraced the best of humankind.

      i think the lesson here is, if ‘we’ discard our shared human values, how then does this make us different from the misanthropes and dominators of the public and private spheres. what makes us different than the authoritarians who wish to impose social and economic paradigms upon us? we have to embrace our humanity- which is to embrace our fellow humans. to disregard life, to disregard radical potential for all but the few, makes them the same as those they purport to overthrow.

  7. The interesting kernel that I get out of this is that Jensen is calling neoliberal arguments for austerity out for what they are.

  8. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Mar 4, 2014 at 4:12 pm |

    Most of the progressives I meet are too self centered to acknowledge this level of profound inadequacy of action. They really think that raising chickens in their backyard is substantially subversive. Acknowledging reality would destroy their sense of identity, which stands in stark contrast to their actualized identity in association with dominant power structures. I don’t really care anymore. I’ll sell them the chickens and teach them how to feed themselves if they ask. Living simply is important. I care like they do. But I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s enough. I wish that I could.

  9. kowalityjesus | Mar 5, 2014 at 1:10 am |

    Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. People will be sparing with expensive items and wasteful with cheap ones. Hybrid cars just lower the price of gas so that pickup trucks will jackrabbit from stoplights more; a rise in gas tax in USA will cause all the moped drivers in SE Asia to throttle liberally; etc.

    I know this is incredibly taboo, but whenever I think about our inability to address worldwide ecological problems, I always think of the Nazis. If the Nazis were not destroyed by WWII, their policies of conservationism and efficiency coupled with their anal and authoritarian nature would produce the entity necessary to handle global warming. Not that I particularly am enamored of German National Socialism, but it would have created an entirely different political dynamic worldwide, one that might have forced carbon emissions to be greatly limited once their impact was realized.

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