Friday, July 10, 2009

Why Eschewing Plastic Bags Won't Help...

Here is a very enlightening article which cuts through the fluff engendered by the establishment concerning the actual facts of personal consumption, and why "doing your part" to limit your use of plastic bags, for example, or bicycling instead of driving, are essentially fruitless activities, if, like author Derrick Jensen, you imagine real change instead of change we just talk about. As usual, a well-written piece and almost all true (well, actually Chaos would take issue with a tiny part, i.e., that small things done by many people do cause large changes, both good and bad. In essence, this is what has caused our footprint upon the planet to be so "heavy."). Quoted in its entirety:

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”?

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.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption—residential, by private car, and so on—is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”

Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.

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.

So how, then, and especially with all the world at stake, have we come to accept these utterly insufficient responses? I think part of it is that we’re in a double bind. A double bind is where you’re given multiple options, but no matter what option you choose, you lose, and withdrawal is not an option. 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.

Besides being ineffective at causing the sorts of changes necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are at least four other problems with perceiving simple living as a political act (as opposed to living simply because that’s what you want to do). The first is that it’s predicated on the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase. Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.

The second problem—and this is another big one—is that it 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. Kirkpatrick Sale again: “The whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth guilt trip is a myth. We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them.”

The third problem is that 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. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.

The fourth problem is that the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.

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.


YogaforCynics said...

Generally speaking, I have two responses to the "doing your part by eschewing plastic bags and biking is essentially worthless" argument:

1) It's true, and, as you point out, basically a lazy assed excuse not to take real action.

2) For most people who use it, Response 1) is an even more lazy assed excuse to do nothing whatsoever and instead live like the most unconscious kind of consumer, because, let's face it, the closest most people who make this argument (and I've known lots of them) are actually gonna get to actually taking action is ranting to their friends over endless bottles of beer (which they won't even recycle) and maybe buying books, CD's and other products by radical environmentalists. In fact, I'd say that, in practice, it's almost as bad as the "I'm gonna get a high paying job with a big corporation so I can change the corporation from within" argument.

One reason radical environmental movements have been so ineffective, in my humble opinion, is that their attempts to get the word out about how bad things are are generally so apocalyptic and terrifying that they turn people away, cause them to turn to God to save them (you know how many Americans aren't concerned about the environment because they think the Rapture's gonna happen before things get really bad? I'd guess it's most of the 45% of Americans who give Sarah Palin positive approval ratings), or get nihilistic about it ("we've already fucked things up so badly, what's the point?"--the dominant viewpoint concerning the environment heard in bars late at night).

So...what's telling average Americans that the only way to save the environment is to do overthrow the system (thus drastically altering everyone's lifestyle from the top down) going to do? My guess is that, most of those who pay attention at all (who will be very few) will find some variation of "Rush Limbaugh's right: the green movement's really just communism in disguise" a lot more compelling.

As such, suggesting that people recycle, use different kinds of light bulbs, and stop voting for Republicans might at least nudge them in the right direction of being willing to make larger changes (just as more than a century of incremental nudges made the Civil Rights Movement possible...such as deciding it was okay to have a black guy on one's favorite baseball team as long as he hit homers, or saying "that Marian Anderson sings pretty good for a negress..." before white Americans became receptive to sit-ins and marches and, eventually, to mandating equal rights...and, needless to say, we've still got quite a few nudges to go when it comes to that issue, as well...).

Chaos said...

Chaos appreciates this thoughtful response from a fellow yogi, and would offer some observations:
1. radical action and doing "small things" are not exclusive; in fact, both are necessary, given the state of both the planet and humanity.
2. One has to live in the context of the life you are born to, i.e., for some, and many people, doing very small things is a start, and in fact, may be the only actions they are capable of, in some or many situations. (Large cities come to mind here, or disgusting suburbia).

3. The problems humanity collectively faces cannot be solved or overcome by individual action. Hence, they most likely will not be solved or overcome.

4. Derrick Jensen is not a writer one can read a synopsis of and "get." Read the books and understand the context. Within that, he is quite difficult to argue against...