I recently read a provocative article on Orion by Derrick Jensen called “Forget Shorter Showers: why personal change does not equal political change.” In a nutshell, he argues that the system is broken, and individual action to minimize impact isn’t going to make a significant dent in saving the planet. Instead of taking shorter showers, we should be lobbying, restoring habitats, or actively trying to bring down the whole industrial economy. Because (and I paraphrase Mr. Jensen) living without electricity is better than a dead planet.
Wow. Heavy stuff.
The article is well worth a read. This is the first time I’ve seriously considered the price of electricity to be planetary death. I suspect Derrick Jensen may be exaggerating just a little. However, the implication that the cost of our current lifestyles and economy is the health of our planet is far more probable, and far more frightening.
I agree that individual action alone isn’t enough to make the kind of drastic difference we really need, in the time frame that we need it. Jensen points out, quite rightly, that corporations, not individuals, cause the lion’s share of habitat damage and pollution. In order to fix that, we need bigger guns than individual consumer decisions (though those help), and we certainly ought to be lobbying the government to stop prioritizing corporate growth over human and environmental welfare. Where Derrick Jensen and I don’t agree is the value of individual action beyond its measurable effects. (I also think compromise is possible between no electricity and a dead planet. But that’s another post.)
So, why bother with shorter showers? For me, the answer has to do with consciousness and individual responsibility. Even though I may ultimately only have a miniscule effect on the planet, making these small changes in my life matters. They remind me every day that I have responsibilities as a citizen of this planet, that my decisions affect the world around me, that things matter beyond my own existence, convenience, or custom. I think this type of consciousness is absolutely key to living more sustainably. It affects everything from how we think about our place in the natural world, to how we use our resources, to how we support or don’t support certain industries, governments, and corporations. If we were born with this sort of consciousness ingrained, I don’t think we’d be in this pickle.
I’d also like to argue that the sincerest and most lasting forms of activism come from this simple, seemingly obvious realization that other things matter. So while the value of taking a shorter shower might be primarily symbolic, it’s also symptomatic of our concern and willingness to take action. Rather than discounting individual action and the recycled toilet paper, shorter showers, and reusable bags it might entail, maybe we should be trying to develop it into something both more conscious and more effective. It’s not an either/or. We can encourage both individual and political action. At this point in the game, we should be doing both. (This is the part where I start to feel guilty about not being a Greenpeace canvasser.)
Probably it won’t be enough. But at least we can say we tried.