Update: Personal Change Matters

About two weeks ago, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, I found myself face to face with a widely circulated article that genuinely shook my otherwise solid grounding in zero waste.
Forget Shorter Showers is an essay by Derrick Jensen. The thesis goes as follows: Personal change does not equal social change.
I know you’re probably getting tired of all the homework I keep assigning you, but seriously. Read it. Then count to ten, drink a nice soothing cup of tea, and maybe watch Pay It Forward a couple times so you can shrug off the negativity and forced assumptions that litter this article.

Okay, so the article really bugged me- he came so close to having something great, something truly brilliant to say. But rather than stopping at his brilliance, he got himself all worked up, drank a couple of red bulls, and put this bad boy out on the internet to ruffle some bureaucratic feathers- in the process, attacking the indicator of cultural change (of course, I am referring to PERSONAL CHANGE) that actually supports the change of policy that he is suggesting.

Okay, so I really disliked the article. It’s ineffective, it’s divisive, and above all else… It’s dangerous- this individual has chosen to use the EXACT systematic misdirection which he has identified within our society. He has created an “us VS. them” binary, the thesis creates the idea that personal change has no relationship to social change (which is just absolutely ridiculous), and he continuously speaks from within the walls of the house that he built; he set the rules for the game, and continued to add rules and obstacles (i.e assumptions and facts) as the article continued.

For one thing, Mr. Jensen speaks as though the government and various corporations are the only foes “we” face- Wrong. These institutions actually stand behind a large portion of individuals who have just as much “right” to voice their opinions and live exactly as they wish to live. Storming the doors and staging a coup would change the policy, but actual social change is a shift in culture- the voice of a collective… Made up of individuals… Who would’ve previously engaged in personal change. Do you see what I’m getting at?

Jensen brought the “systematic misdirection” to my attention, and for that I will always be thankful. He’s right, I did feel highly responsible for climate change, for making better decisions personally, and I would get so caught up in my own footprint that I wouldn’t notice the crater left by large-scale industry. But rather than having a beautiful article that tackled potential ways to resist and fight this image, this displacement of responsibility onto the individual, he dived out of the second story window screaming bloody murder- and in case you’re wondering, yes, all of his effectiveness went with him. He identified a missing link in the communication system between individuals and larger institutions, a missing link that is being used by these larger institutions to keep our environmental concern stagnant- he is doing something that amazing, and didn’t spend even a sentence talking about turning this missing link back on the agencies which  happily mislead the public. Instead, he continuously ignored the fact that our wasteful culture supports the current policies and personal change is an indicator (as well as the beginning) of social change. What is this guy expecting? An overnight change in policy? No way buddy, get real.

I took this article personally because I am on the environmental side of things. It is who I am, it is how I think, and it is what I believe. But you know what else? I also believe that repercussions are something to consider at all times when you are trying to facilitate social change. I have an intense fascination with rhetoric because using words to change the world is an incredible, beautiful, unifying thing. All modes of communication have their strengths and weaknesses and I believe all modes of communication are needed to add to the conversation in different ways; we are chipping at the walls, changing minds in any way we can, and you can bet that I will always be working on myself and my writing to do my part in this conversation- just as I will always denounce misleading and divisive rhetoric like that of Derrick Jensen’s, and that of the institutions which aim to use us as means to their own ends.

To you, Mr. Jensen, I say:

You are a big fat finger pointer and I’m not buying it. This is not a new issue in policy, nor does this “systematic misdirection” act as validation to storm the doors of the government. Personal change does not immediately equal social change, but social change could not physically exist without personal change, and guess what? Cultural change does equal social change, successful social change, not this radical gate-storming you’re talking about. You are awarding power to the institutions you despise when you suggest that our only avenue is war with the government and you are ignoring the fact that this war would also be fought against the numerous individuals who hold opposite beliefs to yourself. If you want successful social change, why don’t you start working with the rest of us “personal” changers? We are working every day to undo the environmental blindfold not only from ourselves, but from those around us, as many as we can reach. Why don’t you start using your sphere of influence to convey universal urgency, understanding, and conviction- why don’t you start unifying a collective rather than slicing off those who don’t meet your standard of activism?


So overall, here’s what I think:

Do you know why environmental activism is not having the monumental social change that Jensen is demanding? Because even the environmentalists can’t agree about where to draw the line. We are not speaking as a unified collective because- well, we are not a unified collective. Despite the fact that things really do need to change, this is not a black and white issue- the speculations and white noise of information act as both communication inhibitors, and perspective dividers. There are hundreds, thousands, of factions, identical and varying, existing side by side. Blatantly put, we as a movement are not organized, and depending on where you stand, it can seem as though none- or all- of the people around you feel the same way. Jensen identified the systematic misdirection which we as individuals experience, but he failed to acknowledge why this misdirection is successful and how we can turn it around.

I truly believe that communication- effective communication- is the key to enacting the sort of social change that environmentalists are hoping for. For many, it is difficult to muster more than a few moments of concern for the environment/climate change because it is one of those creeping issues; it won’t be a universal urgency until the world is on the brink.
But we are in a new age of activism and social change. Given the power of the “majority” who might not be able to understand the urgency now, any and all personal changes can only help shift our culture in a better direction, but Jensen was right- just personal change won’t be enough on its own.
That’s why we need to be moving on all levels of the personal and collective arenas, and more importantly, we need to be able to find and support each other.

We need some level of unity- perhaps some sort of information-based organization which umbrellas various environmental groups- so that we can start moving as a collective and knocking on the proverbial door of the government not just as individual activists, but as a large demographic of citizens who are working together, talking together, and ultimately, changing- personally, and collectively- together.

But hey, that’s just what a little zero-waster thinks. With all my personal change getting in the way, what would I know?

All the best,

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