Nothing You Do Matters.

The more I read it, the angrier I get. I had not read it until a friend of mine posted it on Facebook, but there’s a 2009 article in Orion Magazine by Derrick Jensen entitled “Forget Shorter Showers,” and it begins with this 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, 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”?

Silly environmentalists, thinking they could stop Adolf Hitler by dumpster diving!

First, pardon me for being more than a little skeptical of any article that begins with a mention of Nazis. I’ve been on the internet far too long. But second, this is so clearly a straw horse as to be almost invisible.

No sane person would think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler because no sane person could see any connection between them. No sane person would think dancing naked around a fire could help pass the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act.

The one has nothing to do with the other.

So when Jensen gets to the paragraph’s ultimate sentence, the one where he’s supposed to make his point? Be very suspicious. Because what he’s about to say is that your personal solutions have no impact on anything, ever.

Jenkins’s next paragraph is telling:

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 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? 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.

(Emphasis added).

Let’s stipulate to a couple of things. Let’s accept the section I’ve emphasized in its entirety. Further, let’s assume that the impact of reducing U.S. carbon emissions by 22% on world emissions would be only 5%. That’s a far cry from 75%.

Now, suppose that you’re shopping for a new car, and you get a phone call telling you that you have just been granted the gift of 5% off any car you want. You’d say “sorry, that’s too trivial to bother with,” and hang up. Right?

Of course you wouldn’t. You’d think “5% of $15,000 (sorry, I know most new cars cost considerably more than this, but I’ve never owned one that cost more than $12,000 new) is $750! Wow!”

So why is a 5% reduction in emissions something that we should ignore?

To be fair, Jensen’s point is actually not that we should all take hot showers until the water runs out. His point is that short showers aren’t enough, and that it will take concerted political action and sacrifice to get to where we need to be.

….At this point, it should be pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive (and we shouldn’t pretend that solar photovoltaics, for example, exempt us from this: they still require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other so-called green technology). 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. The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world — none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.

(Emphases added again). So what Jenkins is really saying is that we need to completely change the world. That’s fine. That’s good. He and I agree, to a point.

What he and I disagree on is whether what he calls “simple living,” and what I would call sensible living, is effective. Because he believes that 5% is roughly equal to nothing, Jenkins concludes that sensible living is totally ineffective (I am reminded of the H2G2 conclusion that the Universe is unpopulated (retried from

it is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. however, not every one of them is inhabited. therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the universe can be said to be zero. from this it follows that the population of the whole universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are the products of a deranged imagination.

In other words, Jenkins sounds a lot like an economist. But this is no time for mere insults. Jenkins reminds me of the bird in an S. Mueller cartoon (which, alas, the Internet has thus far been unable to retrieve from the depths of the 1980s: a monstrous parrot shouting “Polly wants it all!”).

Yes, we need concerted political action. We need to change to world. A professor of mine back in college once told me how disappointed he was when the Beatles essentially came out against revolution (“But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”). I do not want to tell you to put down the posters, or more specifically, to stop taking political action. What I want is for you to read the following paragraph from Jenkin’s piece:

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.

…and shout “BULLSHIT! “ when he gets to the last line. Because that’s what it is. Bullshit. Social change has never come about without personal change. And while I don’t buy into the notion that the capitalist system is an unmitigated good, I think that there are ways that personal change can send a message to the military-industrial-political complex that will lead to it changing. And you know what? So does Jenkins. His ultimate paragraph says as much:

The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned — Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States — who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. 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.

Let’s go back to the first paragraph. What caused the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pass? Partly, it was Lindon Johnson, waving the bloody flag of a dead President. But the act never would have been written if those brave people of who Jenkins ultimately writes hadn’t been willing to engage not only in political action, but in inconvenient personal action. Like walking instead of taking the bus.*

The real danger with Jenkin’s perspective is that it tells people that the tiny effects they make by changing their lives are unimportant—it equates small with null. Because if you convince people of that, two things happen: the first is that they stop making those small changes, and those small (not null) effects go away. We lose (among other things) that 5% reduction in carbon emissions. The second is that because they believe they can have no effect, people tend to give up altogether. They become disempowered. Being told that they can’t fight city hall, they stop trying.

We need massive change, but we also need personal change. Indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter.

Well, I suppose that if you bombed every automobile factory in the world, you might effect massive social change without personal change. It wouldn’t last. Or you could impose a Stalinist system (sorry, I have violated a corollary to Godwin’s law) and we’d all drive some kind of Prius/Trabant hybrid.

But if we all stopped buying gas guzzling monsters, and when our current vehicles were beyond repair, replaced them with small, efficient gas/hybrid/electric vehicles, you know what would happen? Manufacturers would start to build small, efficient, gas/hybrid/electric vehicles. Initially in smaller numbers, but over time, in larger numbers. But the onus would be on us to maintain that approach. Hmmm. Could the political be personal?

*I should point out that walking instead of taking the bus wouldn’t have stopped Hitler, either.

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