Simple Living for the Environment Is for Suckers

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image by Jesse Kuhn /

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.”

“Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the earth as well as harm it,” Jensen writes. “We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.”

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