Friday, August 28, 2009

I Know, I know

I said I was going on hiatus, but then I read some controversy-producing blog posts and articles and I can't help but comment on them. Also, I'm trying to stretch out the three hours of dissertation work I have left as long as possible for maximum crankiness.

Beth recently posted a link to an article by Derrick Jensen in Orion Magazine entitled "Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change." The first couple sentences of his piece are pretty abysmal actually. I mean he invokes the NAZIS for crying out loud. And unfortunately those sentences do Jensen a great disservice because the rest of his article is actually quite thoughtful and insightful.

What Jensen is arguing is not that an individual's actions don't matter; rather, he's arguing a very specific point: that individualist environmentalism is not particularly helpful. By individualist environmentalism, I mean environmentalism that is not part of a broader linked-up action, but is done on a personal basis in the home.

Now, recently, one of my friends A got her landlord to put in a gray water tank into her bathroom. Which is pretty awesome, right? Anyway, she was telling us all this, and my friend J interjected and pointed out what a small difference one gray water tank is. Not that he didn't think it was worthwhile, but what's one gray water tank when there are wide swathes of residential lawn, golf courses, and water intense agriculture all over California? And the truth is, my friend J is right as is Jensen who also points out how small residential water usage is in comparison to agriculture and industry.

The point Jensen is making is ... well ... It's the Institutions, Stupid. (Seriously, I HAVE to get tee-shirts made saying that.) Given the crisis we're in, individual action isn't going to cut it. It's kind of like taking an Advil when your appendix is bursting. What is needed is institutional reform.

So, basically, ludicrous and easily refutable first few sentences aside, I completely agree with Jensen. But, in my mind, Jensen doesn't go far enough. Pointing out that individual action isn't enough ... that's the easy part. Look, we all KNOW individual action isn't enough. But as Jensen points out, we're in a double bind. One can give up, and go with the status quo, or one can participate in semi-meaningless individual action. There aren't really many other options for most people.

I think the point is, that individual action can result in two things. One: it can result in complacency. Oh, I recycle and bring my own bags to the grocery store, so I'm doing my bit and I can just sit back.

Or, two, it can propel people to action.

The thing is, if it weren't for individual environmentalism, I would probably not be here in London procrastinating my dissertation. I became individually involved and then became part of a political movement LATER. So I think the real question is, how do we motivate more people to take individual environmentalism one step further? How do we harness the energy from the individual environmentalist movement and use that to change institutions? Those are the real questions that need to be addressed, and it would be great if a few journalists put their thinking caps on and started working on that instead of trying to just shit on personal environmentalists.

Speaking of sh*tting on environmentalists, Elizabeth Kolbert goes after a few in her recent New Yorker article, specifically Colin Beavan and Vanessa Farquharson. Basically, she accuses them both of participating in one-year eco-stunts in order to gain publicity.

To which my response is, "Yeah ... so?"

Did Colin and Vanessa engage in eco-stunts? Sure. But what's wrong with engaging in stunts? Participating in stunts is valid political behavior to attract public attention. Again, speaking from personal experience, I was motivated to change my lifestyle because of people like Colin and Vanessa. And as someone who has arguably participated in her own stunt (though I never wrote a book about it), I can testify that you don't come out the other end an unchanged person. Although my year of strict non-consumerism is over, I shop much, much less than I used to and my entire life philosophy has changed greatly. And knowing Colin and Vanessa as I do, I know they have been transformed as well.

The most ridiculous part of the article is where Kolbert talks about how Colin needs to engage in more political behavior instead of personal environmentalism. I ... kind of don't understand how Kolbert completely missed that Colin is ALL political environmentalism ALL the time these days, what with his new organization, and his protesting, and his meetings with politicians. In fact, Colin has had his ass handed to him by his readers several times because they MISS the personal stories. So if his book, which I haven't read yet, is heavy on the personal anecdotes, that's probably just because Colin knows his audience.

In the end, Kolbert accuses Colin and Vanessa for missing the forest for the trees, but really it's Kolbert who misses the personal transformation because she's too busy criticizing Vanessa for flying places and getting laid.


Green Bean said...

" I can testify that you don't come out the other end an unchanged person." - too true!!

I agree that individual environmentalism is not enough but, like you, it has been the gateway to get me involved in more broad reaching changes and I do think it works effectively in that way. Also, I believe in the power of the purse. If people are making more sustainable food and other choices, the marketplace will move to catch up.

Chile said...

I haven't read the link you provided, but I want to point out another reason for individual action. While it may not make a difference in the big picture, it certainly can in the little one.

For instance, water in Arizona is only going to become more scarce over time and hence more expensive. By practicing extreme conservation, using gray water, and harvesting rain water, we can keep growing organic food in our own garden to feed ourselves at an affordable price. If there is surplus, we can share with others.

Individual action may not save the planet but it may well save your own arse. And then you are able to work on the bigger picture.

heidi said...

The best water conservation ad EVER: - if that doesn't get people to pee in the shower, I don't know what will!

Stephanie said...

Arduous, I can't help but love your posts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the support, Ruchi! I know, the whole criticism about how we should be lobbying governments and undertaking political action is somewhat valid, but imagine if NONE of us made ANY personal changes to our lifestyles -- imagine if no one started using tote bags and stainless steel water bottles; I'm pretty sure companies respond to consumer demand, and consumer habits stem from trends and word of mouth, which come from blogs like ours I think. Sigh.