March 8, 2017

Short showers won't save the planet

Katherine Martinko, Tree Hugger -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. 


Walker said...

There's a lot of obvious merit in this powerful critique of a purely inward focus for environmental activism.

The last three points at the end are all true to a greater or lesser degree (the first one is shaky -- I would like to see the example of where the human species has "helped the earth").

But, speaking as someone who chose not to have children and who gave up meat 25 years ago, and who strives to minimize or eliminate as much consumption as possible, I think there is something overlooked in this critique, strong as it is: namely, that as highly social primates, we are exquisitely evolved to sense and point out the hypocrite -- the person with no credibility, to look at the word's roots.

Recognizing that corporations are the buckets in the Sorcerer's Apprentice (or the machines in the Terminator series) is crucial indeed. But people who only point out the costs of corporate devastation while ignoring their tiny bit added to the collective ongoing catastrophe are often seen as hypocrites and are ineffective thereby.

You can rage at the illogic of it all you want, but the guy who talks like Bill McKibben but who breeds like a "Quiverful" fundamentalist is pretty much guaranteeing that no one will be able hear any of the talk, no matter how wise.

Simpler living must be a political act, because there are powerful political forces arrayed against it, and vast resources devoted to overcoming it and keeping people worshiping at the church of continuous consumption.

Walker said...

Commenting on my own comment again -- sigh.

Anyway, the great New Yorker book review you linked to as "Why facts don't change our minds" makes the point I was trying to make.

Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coƶperate. Coƶperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

In other words, what is most important to social primates is belonging, and people who are perceived to offer prescriptions -- such as how to prevent environmental catastrophe -- while not following those prescriptions in their own lives -- are immediately dismissed, because the evolved response to our social nature includes hating the hypocrite.

The reason the trope used against Al Gore by climate catastrophe deniers is so powerful ("he's got huge houses," "he flies all over the world") is that it fits perfectly into the place in our brains that says "You can't trust the hypocrite."

So short showers -- and all other acts of individual sacrifice -- won't save the world, true. They are not sufficient. But they are probably necessary if you want to be a person who is able to get others to focus on the massive systemic threats we face. Because if you are seen as someone running around prescribing less consumption for others while consuming a bunch yourself, you will not be trusted, and if you are not trusted, you will not be able to do anything else.