Simple Living for the Environment Is for Suckers


| November-December 2009



Simple Living Sucks

image by Jesse Kuhn / www.rawtoastdesign.com

Hey, all you guilt-stricken liberals. Let the water run. Throw those recyclable milk jugs in the trash. And drive that 15-year-old gas-guzzling truck all over town. Heck, flip off a bicyclist while you’re at it.

Not interested? Fine. Go ahead and eschew these eco-heretical lifestyle choices; just don’t go feeling high and mighty about it.

That’s the takeaway from a biting essay in Orion (July-Aug. 2009), written by the always provocative Derrick Jensen. Railing against “simple living as a political act,” the radical environmentalist argues that focusing on our personal choices as a salve for eco-destruction is not only misguided, but also ineffective.

“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 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’?”

To prop up his provocative prose, Jensen shows how agriculture and industry are responsible for the bulk of water and energy use, as well as the majority of emissions and waste. This is a reality that’s often overlooked on those ubiquitous “how to be green” lists, which include recommendations for individuals: shorter showers, lighter dishwasher settings, canvas bags for the grocery store.

It’s fine, Jensen says, if you live simply just because you want to. But to pretend that doing so is “a powerful political act” distracts citizens from confronting the larger consequences of an environmentally destructive industrial economy. It also prevents people from becoming true stewards of the earth, relying instead on “the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase.”

bill_7
12/9/2009 9:33:15 PM

Does Mr Jensen have new info I'm not privy to? Non-point-source pollution (i.e., "people pollution") surpassed industry several years ago as the biggest source of environmental damage. Not only do personal choices change one's impact measurably, but they have exponential affects. In addition, if one becomes conservation-minded, the person brings that into their professional life where they can really scale up the affects. Political statement, no. Of course not, unless one publicizes it as might be done with a hunger strike. But having positive affects, absolutely. Nice provocative piece, but seriously lacking an analytical mind and facts.


bill_7
12/9/2009 9:30:21 PM

Does Mr Jensen have new info I'm not privy to? Non-point-source pollution (i.e., "people pollution") surpassed industry several years ago as the biggest source of environmental damage. Not only do personal choices change one's impact measurably, but they have exponential affects. In addition, if one becomes conservation-minded, the person brings that into their professional life where they can really scale up the affects. Political statement, no. Of course not, unless one publicizes it as might be done with a hunger strike. But having positive affects, absolutely. Nice provocative piece, but seriously lacking an analytical mind and facts.


c. a. kobu_2
12/8/2009 3:24:40 AM

Change begins at a personal level. The intent and the mindset are necessary to be able to demand more complex structures to initiate a positive change at a higher level. If I'm not careful and conscious about what I consume, how can I ask the government or corporations to change? But I do understand the author's point. We should do more than that.


russell meyers
12/7/2009 1:11:51 PM

Lots of non-simple statements here. My view is that living simply is like being in school. We learn that we do not need so much which is promoted as necessity today. We learn firsthand how things can be done differently, less expensively, more ecologically conservatively. In the process, we question why things on a larger scale have been done so wastefully for so long. We know from personal experience when we are being lied to by government agencies and large corporations or even small local businesses. Simple put, living simply on the small scale enables us to understand things on a larger scale. We cannot understand macroeconomics if we do not understand how to balance our own checkbooks.


eric_4
12/7/2009 12:54:18 PM

Degrowth. As long as our nation relys on growth to be sustainable, being "green" only slows down consumption so that growth can still be obtained while the resources are at a mangable level. Cap-n-trade will ruin america, only because of our "entitled" status that even the poorest among us can still afford most of what they need, and often times, much more. I think while the green movement is good, capitalism must still be respected that it shouldn't take take large government intervention (hardly ever a good thing) or simple economics to make going "green" easy to financally consider.


pe_5
12/7/2009 11:27:29 AM

As, in the US federal system, states can innovate and the central govt then make it universal, so persons innovating can become a determining number for change. Voting daily with dollars has greater effect than every 2 or 4 years in a booth with 2 real choices at most, if, as we're told, buyers make up 2/3 the economy. Unlike political voting, one is allowed to acstain from buying, equivalent to a 'none of the above' vote. And since the Supreme view that money equals speech (but millions don't equal shouting, drowning out others) has already corrupted the vote, and the new Supremes will soon allow corporations, the undead 'persons' among us, to finance Federal elections directly, we can pack up our votes entirely. Meanwhile, cap-and-trade, falsely praised as reducing acid rain, will palliate some effects of global climate change, as slowly as possible, and of course corruptly. Jim Hansen has suggested a carbon fee method with genuine promise, so use your dwindling ability to have any effect by pushing his idea for copenhagen and next Spring's Congressional muddle. Last chance to lessen the oncoming mess, years too late to reverse it. Forgive the reality check?


susan_4
12/7/2009 10:35:00 AM

The way I see it, you can't criticize everyone else unless you personally are doing some conservation efforts. I do agree with "cheap" in the earlier post. A lot of what I do is also driven by economics. We are still driving the 19 year old truck and the 25 year old car. The amount that we drive would never ever pay back the investment in a hybrid. We simply don't drive enough to ever save that much gas. And I really like to use stuff up. And I certainly am not going to go into debt to get a new car. The 3 KW solar system and the solar hot water, however, make me happy. They will pay for themselves in a reasonable time period. (Paid cash, no debt) Don't underestimate policy that gives enough incentive to make environmentally sound choices. That way the less financially fortunate will have some ability to participate in the effort.


ew
12/7/2009 8:41:19 AM

Perhaps we are just being shortsighted with regard to the landfills. Maybe we need to view them in another light. If we have mountains of metals and plastics stacked in fills where the natural bacteria eat away the biological matter, then it would appear that we have great resource mines just waiting for their materials to be extracted and put to use. Maybe, just maybe, instead of discarding the unwanted in the landfills, we are storing and saving material resources for the future. On the other hand, living life well, without wasting, destroying, and polluting can never be a bad thing.....


robert stockham_1
12/7/2009 8:39:58 AM

Living green is a lifestyle choice. It BEGINS with recycling, taking shorter showers, etc. It doesn't really change anything by itself, but by looking at the last election, one +one+one can make a difference. The point of the article is that we need to realize that we need to go farther, demand more and elect officials that are going to vote pro earth. In the meantime, though, we need to individually stop adding to the problem by using less and reducing our carbon footprint. Turning off the water while we brush or shave is not really a political statement, it is a personal statement that do for ourselves to add meaning to the political statements that we do make.


cynic
12/7/2009 7:26:26 AM

Collecting scrap metal, fat, wastepaper and so forth WAS part of the war effort to stop Hitler. But the author's point is taken.


rock_1
11/18/2009 11:46:46 AM

You need more than one arrow in your quiver, more than one color on your palette. You need to conceptualize on both the personal and the global level. You need to understand at the gut level what you are promoting. It isn't buying organic veggies at the supermarket that were trucked across the nation (I'm in the east), it's growing them in your backyard. It's growing/buying when fruits and vegetables are in season and excess and preserving them. It's changing your lifestyle to be more self sufficient, and not falling into the distribution channel myth that they will provide all you need - what you need to do is work at a useless job earning money to buy their "stuff". Homemaking use to be an honorable task. But, yes, we need money or else Susie and Jimmy can't have their own cell phone, and how will we get 200 ridiculous channels on cable, and game boy, wii, etc. The localvore idea is good - short distribution areas based on 40-50 mile radius is a great start. I keep thinking Americans will wake up to food safety (Jensen id's ag as one of the two main culprits) with the next e coli scare, but they keep coming, and people keep trusting Big Ag to keep them fat and happy. Find a CSA, start an urban garden with your neighbors, do something that creates 'wealth', ie, convert human effort and renewable natural resources into useful products. How many families can eat off one vacant urban lot? (I'll shut up now.)


daltxguy
11/17/2009 6:51:08 PM

I live 'green' because I am cheap, not because of a political act. I don't want to pay high fuel bills, electric bills, mortgages. I don't want to feed the corporatocracy by being a consumer. The single most mind blowing event leading to the current depression is that middle Americans chose to 'walk away' from their mortgages because when the value of their homes dropped below their mortgages. This is not possible anywhere else in the world, btw but look at the effect that this has had! Now, the govt response of course was to reward banks for their stupidity, not to recognize the power of the individuals who said f-you to the banks. The point is, though, that individual action can bring down large corporations, which is what it is going to take before anything changes. Americans are not yet outraged enough to realize that govt has been taken over and is no longer 'by the people, for the people'. When that happens and people take to the streets, true change can begin to occur.


lisa bernstein_1
11/17/2009 3:11:42 PM

The point is, simple living can be part of a larger political stance. Of course we urgently need a change in our industries. We have for years and years. Canvas bags in the grocery store help people wake up and get interested in realizing that we need some changes. As does riding a bicycle and buying less crap to put in a landfill. Of course we need to write letters, vote for leaders who will take sensible action, and head in sustainable direction. Voting with are pocketbooks and making visable choices in our lives are part of that.


jennifer caputo
11/17/2009 2:30:56 PM

Wow! What a dangerous idea to spread - that the individual can't make a difference. Small changes don't fix everything at once, so don't bother. As if people don't feel helpless and disenfranchised enough! It takes millions of drops of water to fill a reservoir, but no matter how big the quantity needed, it is still made up of drops. How many drops have you wasted today?


keryl mccord_1
11/17/2009 12:02:56 PM

Well, this was an eye-opener. What a thought provoking and powerful piece. However, having said that, and fully agreeing with his overall premise, it is still critical that as individuals we do what we can not to waste resources, not to continue to use plastics and other items that will outlast us. That's just common sense. Jansen is correct when he says that it was only through an all out commitment to confront the system and status quo that change occurred. But change also had to occur at the personal level. The personal is political was trite and true, as is all politics is local. We have to learn to live our principles, and to fight for them as well.