Monday, July 13, 2009

Keep Your Coins, I Want Change

A friend recently sent me an article just published in Orion Magazine entitled "Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change" by Derrick Jensen.

I tend to be an eternal optimist (well, maybe not "eternal," but MOST of the time) and this article struck me as slightly pessimistic, but very true, and very to the point. And, to be honest, I'm kind of a sucker when I hear the word "activism."
Photo Credit: michaelpickard

He starts off his article by provocatively comparing daily "green tasks" (some of which I may have attempted to persuade you to pick up in this blog) to major historical events from around the world:

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”?

He goes on throughout the article debunking common beliefs about personal changes (such as taking a shorter shower and reducing our waste output) equaling global changes (such as halting global warming.) I'm not going to lie, I was a little discouraged by all of this until I got to this next part.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

In the long run, personal changes aren't enough to save the world from imminent doom.

The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned—Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States—who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.

Is it still important to reduce, reuse and recycle? Of course. Little things do help a little bit. That plastic bag you recycle instead of throwing into the trash could be the plastic bag that would have otherwise killed a fish or a whale. Maybe it's just for my own peace of mind, but I still like to think that one person can make a difference. But in order for one person to make a difference, we have to gain support for a cause, and we have to be active. So, stop reading (yes, I'm telling you to stop reading my blog...) and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Seriously. Read the whole article. If nothing else, it will get you thinking, and that's the first step to activism.


  1. A little girl and her grandfather were walking along a beach. As the surf crashed onto the sand, it washed up starfish and stranded them on the sand. The beach was full of them. As the little girl passed by one of the stranded starfish, she tossed it back into the ocean. "What are you doing, dear?" asked her grandfather. "If I don't do anything, these starfish will die," said the little girl, tossing another starfish into the water. Her grandfather looked down the long beach at the countless starfish washed up on the sand. "There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish, and they're stranded with every tide. Rescuing a handful of starfish just doesn't matter." The little girl tossed another starfish back into the ocean. "It mattered to THAT one," she said.

  2. I think Activism (with a capital A) has to start with activism (with a small (green) a). When I refill a stainless steel bottle for my water when I walk, or remember to bring my grocery bags into Valesky's instead of using "paper or plastic," I am thinking about being part of the bigger sociocultural political and natural environment. The more often I think about it while actively DOING something, the more likely it is that I will one day effect change with a capital C. Or that someone close to me will....