June 26, 2011

Forget Shorter Showers?

I don’t think so.

I have been contemplating Derrick Jensen’s article, Forget Shorter Showers, for two years now.

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?

Industrial polluters.

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.

Sometimes when I compare my own use of water to, say, Coca Cola’s, my blood boils. At least Coca-Cola’s irresponsible use and contamination of the water in my parents’ home state of Kerala in India was not left unchecked. It seems, occasionally (though far too seldom), there is some industrial accountability. The high court of Kerala ruled against Coke and expects it to pay compensation to the victims of its pollution.

Regardless, the CEO of Coca-Cola and I are star stuff.

And once a year I might drink a Coke, but when I go to Kerala, I don’t take more than my share and I don’t take a giant shit in the water like Coke did:

The bill, titled “The Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Tribunal Bill 2011,” said the plant had caused environmental and soil degradation and water contamination due to over-extraction of ground water leading to drinking water scarcity and decline in agriculture due to disposal of sludge which contained metals like cadmium, lead and chromium.

Furthermore, simply because Lake Michigan is available for me to drink from does not mean I leave my tap on while I brush my teeth. Or that I take half hour showers. Yet BP recently got the go ahead to dump more ammonia into Lake Michigan, the water I and so many others live on. Despite that great injustice, I still don’t waste water – even though technically I can – because, for one, I have seen middle class people in Mumbai get their water delivered to them.

Of course, I don’t think that my shorter showers are helping these people directly with their water woes, but my sense of conservation makes me value my own easy access to clean water. And it helps me see water as something precious that everyone on the planet is not fortunate to possess with such ease and reliability.

It teaches me empathy toward my fellow human beings.

To become an activist, one has to put the mask on oneself first before attempting to assist other passengers on the planet.

So the question is: do we all pass through this bottleneck with dignity, into a clean, green future? Or does the majority get left behind as the privileged few scurry through?

I hope that humanity can make it through.

But I’m not tied to any hope.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I will still attempt to avoid plastic at every turn. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I take my own grocery bags whenever I go shopping. And I have seen this trend increase in the last three or four years, which is promising. This phenomenon started on the individual level, perhaps with only a few people in different cities and towns across America (and the world) taking reusable bags to the store. Now there are even laws that ban plastic bags in some places.

When we consider one individual act, it can seem miniscule—in fact, meaningless—against the backdrop of environmental atrocities out there.

But maybe one way to speed up the process of change to the collective whole, as with smoking, is to make the action appear out of vogue.

Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian can actually do something with their fame rather than acting like vapid, dolled-up adolescents and publicly eschew plastic to their fans. “Plastic and Styrofoam are, like, not cool, guys,” or something of that nature. We can use Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a guide on how to spread the idea that plastic and Styrofoam are bad news. Then, hopefully in a not-too-distant future, if you’re walking around with a plastic bag, you feel a shadow of shame looming over you.

We don’t assume we can smoke in line at the bank or in our airplane seat anymore. Why not? Because that paradigm already shifted! Things have changed. And this can be the case with plastic and Styrofoam.

They are, like, not cool anymore, guys.

Plastic, polyester, carpeting, and so many other things in our lives are made from oil. So as BP, Exxon, Chevron, and others are dumping actual oil into our rivers and oceans, individuals are dumping plastic oil, piece by non-biodegradable piece.

I have seen images of the Pacific Garbage Patch, and I have seen plastic—all sorts of individual-generated plastic like condoms and soda bottles, engine oil containers and straws—floating in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea. In fact, 90% of the trash in the world’s oceans is plastic. That’s not even counting the actual oil and sludge that industry has dumped and continues to dump.

My heart feels compelled not to use plastic because I see how it is destroying the natural world. There is a direct connection between my choice to use a plastic cup and all the plastic pollution out there in the world, and sometimes my small radius is all I can focus on. I cannot take in the entire ugly picture all the time, and it’s not for a lack of effort. There are so many ugly environmental pictures to choose from.

So excuse me, Mr. Jensen, if I retreat into my entirely personal solutions. Because while your notion of targeting the industrial giants is spot-on, so is bringing my own glass to-go container to a restaurant (which I haven’t actually done yet, but I think it’s a great idea).

Seemingly small actions, like using a plastic bag, add up to the Pacific Garbage Patch. And yes, it was individual actions that collectively led to the abolition of slavery. Not composting, like you stated. These individual revolts, as it were, were aligned with the intended result, which was to abolish the evil of slavery. Your statement is simply misaligned. If slaves had composted en masse with the end result of, say, cooperative organic farming, perhaps today small farmers might not have Monsanto’s mafia-like tactics to deal with.

Instead, many individuals revolted—both black and white—against the idea that human beings are chattel, and only after years of their combined efforts did Abraham Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation. And that was just the beginning of the ex-slave’s struggle.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, all humans are beholden to industrial polluters, whether we drink Coke, use gasoline, or wear polyester pants. But we have the power to shift the unbalanced nature of the relationship using a two-pronged attack.

So let the revolts begin.

Read 17 Comments and Reply

Read 17 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

S.V. Pillay  |  Contribution: 2,820