Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Monday, August 10, 2009

personal change, social change, and climate change

Derrick Jensen asks, in his article Forget Shorter Showers from Orion Magazine:

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?

And yet, Jenson observes, many of the most-publicized remedies for global warming focus on changes in personal habits.

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?

Suppose every individual in the United States started taking shorter showers, bicycling to the grocery store, buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, using cloth shopping bags, and recycling all our trash. We might feel like congratulating ourselves, but aside from good feelings we wouldn't have accomplished much:

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.

The problem, Jensen says, goes to the very core of Western civilization. Our consumption-based culture is slowly choking this fragile earth that we all must share. Industrial forces beyond any one person's control cause more damage than any one person can mitigate. And we can't avert the problem by opting out:

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.

This is a sobering realization for those of us who make a conscious effort to live simply. Though we may gain personal benefits from cutting back, we cannot turn back the tide of industry that is etching a permanent scar on the face of our planet.

As stark as this picture is, Jenson's solution is just as stark:

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.

But Jenson fails to recognize that these same systems have also brought major improvements to our quality of life. More children than ever survive into adulthood. More people overcome diseases that killed our ancestors. More people have enough food to eat. More families have their own homes. More people earn enough money to keep themselves out of poverty, and to save for a comfortable retirement.

We are hooked on the horns of a dilemma. We can't destroy our industrial systems without destroying the good they have brought us. Yet our industrial systems are pushing us over the edge of sustainability. Where do we go from here?

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