Personal Solutions Can't Save the Planet

CC BY 2.0. papanooms

A short film called "Forget Short Showers" wants us to replace ethical shopping with fierce activism.

As a lifestyle writer for TreeHugger, I spend my days thinking and writing about ways of reducing one’s personal footprint in the world. Conscious consumerism is the core message in many of the posts I write, urging people to “vote with their money.” I write about the importance of buying ethical and sustainable products, supporting local businesses, minimizing waste, reducing meat, riding a bike instead of driving. I practice what I preach on a daily basis because I believe in the power of these simple actions to create change – and, hopefully, to inspire others to rethink their own lifestyles, too.

Occasionally, though, I encounter something that makes me question my passionate belief in the power of personal change. This happened recently when I watched a video called “Forget Short Showers.” Based on an essay by the same name, written by Derrick Jensen in 2009, the 11-minute film challenges the notion that ‘simple living’ can effect real social change.

As narrator Jordan Brown says, no matter what environmental problem you consider, whether it’s the water crisis, the waste crisis, the emissions crisis, you name it, our personal actions account for very little of what’s going wrong. The vast majority of the problems can be traced back to the industrial economy, which consumes most of the water, generates most of the plastic waste, creates the most emissions, and so on and so forth.

What we do as individuals, he argues, does almost nothing to change the big picture. For example, municipal household waste accounts for only 3 percent of waste in the United States, so what’s the point of encouraging people to go zero waste at home?

Brown identifies four problems with perceiving simple living as a political act.

1) It is based on the notion that humans inevitably harm their land base. This fails to acknowledge that humans can help the Earth.
2) It incorrectly assigns blame to the individual, instead of targeting those who wield power within the industrial system – and the system itself.
3) It accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us as consumers, rather than citizens. We reduce our potential forms of resistance to ‘consuming vs. not consuming,’ despite there being far broader resistance tactics available to us.
4) The endpoint of logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within our economy is destructive, and we want to stop this destruction, then the planet would be better off with us dead.

Instead, Brown wants us to become political activists, loud and outspoken, because activists – not passive consumers – are the ones who have always changed the course of history. They get Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts signed, slavery abolished, prison camps emptied.

Alden Wicker makes a similar argument in an article for Quartz, titled “Conscious consumerism is a lie.” Wicker, a green lifestyle blogger, writes that “small steps taken by thoughtful consumers—to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester—will not change the world.” This is not to say that we shouldn’t be trying to minimize our personal footprints, but our work has to go beyond whipping out a credit card for a new set of organic bedsheets. It has to move into places like town hall meetings and public protests.

“On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.”

Brown’s and Wicker’s arguments are smart and profound, but I don’t agree entirely. I believe that lasting change can come from the bottom up, that an upwelling of grassroots support for more ethical, eco-friendly policies is inevitable, once a tipping point is reached. That tipping point comes when enough people start caring about their effect on the planet, and when people’s own homes are threatened by environmental devastation caused by our industrial economy. Naomi Klein writes about this in her last book on climate change, This Changes Everything. Desperate, affected individuals rally as groups, eager to get political. I believe that tipping point is coming, sooner than we realize.

Nor should we be so quick to doubt the humble roots of so many major political movements. Margaret Mead's popular quote comes to mind:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Conscious consumerism may not look like much when you analyze the numbers; it may be a mere drop of effort in a sea of catastrophe; but that doesn't mean it cannot lead to the surge of public will that's needed to support the afore-mentioned activists.

In the meantime, I will take Wicker’s advice to heart. It is indeed time to “climb on out of my upcycled wooden chair” – rather, step away from my bamboo and recycled aluminum standing desk – and head to the next town council meeting.

Watch "Forget Shorter Showers" below. Shared with permission from