Why Simple Living as a Political Act Is Wrong

7/16/2009 3:32:00 PM

Tags: Spirituality, mindful living, Derrick Jensen, activism, Orion

Derrick Jensen portraitActivist and Utne Visionary Derrick Jensen has never been the sentimental type. I’d go so far as to call him pathologically unsentimental. In his essay "Forget Shorter Showers," published in Orion, he takes on the activist phenomenon of simple living as a political act.

Simple living as a political act, he writes, “accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers”:

By accepting this redefinition, we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.

“The endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act,” he adds, “is suicide”:

If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.

So what do we do? Jensen never signs off without a call to revolutionary action:

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.

Source: Orion 

Image by Robert Shetterly.



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steve_4
7/23/2009 8:32:52 AM
well, really it's both, right? at what point will we stop arguing in terms of black and white and realize that the truth is that it's not one or the other. look at impactful social change makers -- gandhi, mlk, thich nhat hanh. for them it wasn't about, do i change my personal life or do i effect change outside of myself? it was both -- i create a personal life that is wholly in line with the world i want and, from that place, i effect change in the outside world. jensen is right in the sense that if you only effect personal change, that doesn't do much at all. but he's wrong in the sense that you only focus on outside change. if you do that, you get a reproductive rights organization like planned parenthood where so many of their own low-income staff have unplanned pregnancies, or a rights organization like acorn that union-busts its own employees. we must be the change, and we must effect change from that place.

steve_4
7/23/2009 8:32:22 AM
well, really it's both, right? at what point will we stop arguing in terms of black and white and realize that the truth is that it's not one or the other. look at impactful social change makers -- gandhi, mlk, thich nhat hanh. for them it wasn't about, do i change my personal life or do i effect change outside of myself? it was both -- i create a personal life that is wholly in line with the world i want and, from that place, i effect change in the outside world. jensen is right in the sense that if you only effect personal change, that doesn't do much at all. but he's wrong in the sense that you only focus on outside change. if you do that, you get a reproductive rights organization like planned parenthood where so many of their own low-income staff have unplanned pregnancies, or a rights organization like acorn that union-busts its own employees. we must be the change, and we must effect change from that place.

bookbeaver
7/23/2009 12:30:41 AM
Wow, I think the commenters either missed his point or his arrows hit too close to home. Living a simpler life is all well and good, but it is not enough! It's the easy way to ease one's conscience, but it accomplishes little of long-term value to the world. Coupled with genuine action outside one's comfort zone, however, much is possible. Reducing consumption is but one rung on the ladder, and the least risky. It is simply not enough.

peloton feuer
7/22/2009 10:42:57 AM
Bullshit...'Simple living' is the first and most profound action toward a more fair, just, healthy, sustainable and peaceful future for all the world. To imply the notion of reducing one's dependency on - that is, to alter one's gluttonous, wasteful, environmentally abusive habits - is useless, misguided or ineffectual, is just plain nonsense. Who is the author 'speaking' to? Who's paying him? Living 'simple' is living one's life with the least possible dependency on 'business' in order to thrive. How is that not the best way to live? I feel compelled to call the author an asshole; but, I know that would not be appropriate...I'll just think it. pf

Matt Ellsworth
7/17/2009 11:31:31 AM
And yet. I'd say that activism *without* simple living is activism that may soon be derailed. Remember the bio of John Brown? Many times, his abolitionism was derailed because he was so busy trying to simultaneously make a buck. Those who practice simple living generally aren't merely trying to get as close to zero as possible. They're trying to support alternate consumption structures. Wendell Berry doesn't think we shouldn't have clothes and food--he thinks we'll be healthier, and living in a healthier world, if we're bartering with and buying from people we know personally instead of cruising the aisles at Best Buy. Without having read Jensen's piece (I know, I know...), I'd have to say he sounds a lot like so many people I used to see in Berkeley--sipping $4 fair-trade lattes and wearing $250 REI jackets as they drove their brand-new Priuses up to Mt. Tam to cruise around on their $3,000 Treks. It's nice that they vote for Obama and give money to the Human Rights Campaign, but... there's a disconnect.



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