Taking Shorter Showers Doesn’t Cut It

By Josh Ran

I just read a fantastic article by Derrick Jensen in the Orion that I wanted to share with you.

About once a week – on comments on the Understory, or in conversations that I have with friends – I hear someone make a remark that fits into a common theme:

I’m glad you organized this protest, but did you drive cars to get there? Burning oil destroys the earth.

Recently, I wrote an Understory post about the recent Chevron court ruling in Richmond, California – and amongst the many comments that people have posted in response, there have actuually been a number of people who are pro-Chevron, who’ve made arguments along the same lines (these are actual quotes):

Some of these people responding here … think they are protecting the people, they drive gas powered cars, drink from plastic bottles and all the other stuff thats soooo bad for our environment.

Come back to the real world… do you drive, watch tv, use a microwave, drink from plastic bottles! I am sure your kind [environmentalists] do NOTHING to harm the environment.

This way of thinking about environmental change has bothered me for a long time. And in an article in the latest Orion, Derrick Jensen tears it apart better than I ever could.

The problem, as Jensen points out, is that environmental destruction is systemic – it’s rooted in a culture of environmental exploitation that is hard-wired into our economy, culture, and politics. As Jensen points out, it’s great to take shorter showers – but in a society where 90% of water consumption goes to industry and industrial agriculture, it doesn’t really make much of a difference as long as those folks keep on using water the same way they always have.

Likewise, it’s great to drive less, and/or buy a hybrid car. I’m an anti-war activist as well as an environmental activist, and often when put gas into a car I think about the images of destruction I’ve seen from the Iraq War, and I wonder if anyone died to get this oil to me. But here again, the real problem is the powerful alliance between oil companies and the automobile industry – who have continued using petroleum-powered internal combustion since they were first invented in 1885 – and who bought up and shut down many of the light rail transit systems in the U.S. in the 1950’s, replacing them with General Motors buses.

I’m not saying that it’s not important to try to make changes to your lifestyle in order to reduce your impact on the environment. Personally (and I mention this at the risk of sounding like a holier-than-thou environmentalist), I still don’t own a car, don’t eat meat, do my best to recycle and compost, eat locally grown and organic food, bring my own bags to the grocery store, etc., etc. And I’d encourage anyone else to change their lifestyle in ways that will reduce their carbon footprint, and otherwise help the planet.

But I also realize that all that isn’t really going to change the world – at least, not by itself. We live in a world where corporate executives make decisions based on quarterly profit margins and shareholder earnings – not on the impact that their decisions will have on the next seven, or 700, generations. We live in a world where politicians are more beholden to the industries that fund their campaigns than to the planet that provides them with food, water, and air. And until we change that world, our planet will continue to suffer as it has for the past 200 years.

Of course, Jensen puts it better than I ever could:

An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. […]

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.

And that’s why I work for RAN. To me, the answer is taking on the corporations whose practices are destroying the planet – and whose practices, as consumers, we have no power over. But as a movement, we can force them to make the changes that our planet – and everyone and everything that lives on it – so desperately needs.