Originally published on elephantjournal.com by Sunita Pillay.
I don’t think so.
It has been on the back burner of my brain all this time.
Jensen argues that retreating into “entirely personal” environmental solutions is not going to change the dismal global ecological picture, so we can forget taking shorter showers, as the title says. In a nutshell, our little acts of eco-consciousness can’t change the world, and they are, in fact, incongruous to that end. He writes,
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”?
It’s a bit of a snarky opening for my taste, but I understand his frustration.
I think the key word here is “entirely,” but one can get lost in the sarcasm. I did at first.
He then goes on to say: sure, live simply, but don’t get any grand illusions that you are actually accomplishing anything by bringing your own bags to the grocery store. His greater point is that “Personal change does not equal political change.” We have all been reduced to consumers, Jensen says. We have been beguiled by the myth that we, as individuals, are each responsible for fouling up the planet. Recall the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth. The myth further tells us that it is we as individuals who need to change it—for instance, by driving less, or (again) by taking shorter showers. Whereas according to Jensen, actions like these are futile.
He alleviates some serious guilt.
So if we don’t need to change the way we live, who needs to change?
They are collectively the biggest polluters on the planet by far.
A certain oil company comes to mind.
So instead of acting the part of powerless consumer sucking on the industrial teat, or the obedient recycler, or bicycler, Jensen calls on individuals to redirect their energy and become activists who work to dismantle massive pollution systems. After all, mega-industries are the ones most responsible for the over-use and devastation of natural resources the globe over. Activists, he says, need to call for political industrial accountability. He delves further into the idea of industrial accountability in his article The Age of Oops.
Ultimately, we the people need to hold industry’s feet to the fire and not merely focus on our own (useless) radius of ecological actions.
Jensen’s work is thought-provoking. It has made me question my own eco-conscious practices and what they mean—or don’t mean.
In one way, my actions are utterly meaningless—but not in the way that Jensen suggests. They are meaningless, of course, because everything is ultimately meaningless. Like any other species, humans will eventually become extinct. Everything is in the process of changing, dying off. However, I am compelled to ask: what if my tiny radius of eco-actions does actually affect the greater whole positively and dramatically?
I am confident that Derrick Jensen, too, wants to see humanity through what Edward O. Wilson calls the Bottleneck—but the only effective method Jensen sees is direct confrontation with agricultural and industrial giants, the prime perpetrators of ecological crimes.
I agree, in part.
However, there is another effective method—inextricably linked to Jensen’s—on the path to ensuring that industries are held accountable for their actions. And that method begins within the individual sphere.
And yet Jensen doesn’t agree with me. He does not think my personal solutions are relevant to the achievement of the goal of industrial accountability. Not only are my actions not valuable to that end, they are utterly futile, according to him. They are, as he argues in the beginning of his article, like using composting to end slavery: a complete disconnect from the greater whole.
I respectfully disagree, and this is where our paths diverge.
In the Book of Genesis it is written, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”
This sense of dominion of the natural world has been internalized in Judeo-Christian culture and has now become a global epidemic. There are virtually no new natural frontiers left on earth. Western civilization has unfortunately been guided by a fictional dictum that the world and its creatures have been given to man to dominate. And dominate they have.
I recently saw the documentary film I Am, by the director Tom Shadyac. To me, it is a film (partly) about science catching up with a concept found in Indian psychology (and others) which says that all of creation is a part of one unitive vision. I am no enlightened master, but I don’t have to be a guru in order to realize the truth, at least intellectually.
Carl Sagan realized it when he said, “The earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.” This stuff binds us together; we are it, and it is us. In the unitive vision, my individual radius is intrinsically linked to the greater whole; or, rather, it is the greater whole—quite literally down to the molecules.
But here’s the catch: the star stuff connects me to all creation, regardless of political stripe. So as much as I don’t want to admit it, I am the leviathans of industry, and so is Derrick Jensen.
Yep, these guys are us.
These guys, who are indicative of a Judeo-Christian culture in which the dictum from the Book of Genesis has been acted upon for generations, still seek to dominate and pacify the natural world, whatever of it there is left on earth.
I really want to tell Derrick Jensen that my individual eco-conscious actions are part of a wave of a shifting consciousness. I do not feel especially warm and fuzzy about myself because I do these things; I am just a single cell in a Petri dish—a Petri dish that I share with the likes of the Koch Brothers. I am a changing cell, and I can make sure the paradigm shift within me is complete, and that I fully develop a consciousness of conservation. In a way, this shift actually is what Jensen calls “retreating entirely into personal solutions.”
It’s a kind of vigilant looking inward and then outward to your local surroundings, and then further outward to the world at large and then back inward again. It’s a constant process of expanding and retracting the circle, and one aspect of the process, such as becoming an environmental activist solely focused on the macrocosm, cannot trump any other aspect, as difficult as that is to imagine. We have to be conscious of both the small circle and the large circle all the time.
I am positive Jensen would not dump his used engine oil into a stream, even though technically that small act pales in comparison to the 200 million gallons of BP oil sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico right now. This disparity drives people mad; it drives me mad too. It is not fair that there is next to no accountability on the part of these for-profit polluters.
About the author.
Sunita Pillay is a freelance writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. She enjoys communing with nature, having her mind blown by art in various forms, and other hippie stuff.
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