Is personal lifestyle change effective?

Tree of LifeIs working hard to make personal changes in our lives, especially when it comes to living sustainably, a futile effort in the face of all the other kinds of unsustainable things going on in the world?  Is personal lifestyle change effective?

I've asked a version of this question before: Must we become the change we wish to see in the world? You can maybe tell that there's a theme here - impactful personal lifestyle change is not often convenient, and sometimes it is downright scary.  But that's not a reason not to spend as much energy and time as it takes to try to live more sustainably, right?  Change has to happen with each person individually before we can expect the system to change, right?

Or does it?

There's an essay out there that's been weighing on me lately, bothering me, in fact.  Essays like this don't bother me unless either (A) I know they're speaking the truth and I'm having a hard or slow time integrating that truth into my own life, or (B) I know that they're missing something important in their treatment of the subject, but I just can't put my finger on what it is.  In this case it may be some of both.

The essay is "Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change" by Derrick Jensen.  Jensen basically says that it's problematic to see an individual living more sustainably as an effective political act, and that devoting time and energy to doing so is not necessarily worth it unless it's personally rewarding for you.  His reasons:

  1. Simple personal living as a political act is focused on harm reduction, instead of on helping bring about needed positive change
  2. Simple personal living assigns the blame, guilt and burden to individuals for addressing sustainability issues, instead of to the entities (corporations, governments, etc.) who are creating and perpetuating the problems.
  3. Simple personal living as a political act accepts the capitalist redefinition of people from citizens to consumers, reducing our forms of action to "consuming" and "not consuming."
  4. If we don't question the intellectual, moral, economic and physical infrastructure that create destructive, unsustainable ways of life, but insist that we want to personally be a part of the solution, the inevitable conclusion leads us to self-destruction (or, as Jensen puts it, suicide).

I've rephrased some of Jensen's reasoning, so I hope you'll read the full essay to get his original thoughts.  But here's my take on what he's saying and my original question:

I agree that it's silly and self-defeating to expend significant resources on personal change without also challenging the pieces of infrastructure that cause harm in the first place.  I do think that a balance can be found more easily within the construct of a community than it can within an individual's life.  Some people may be really good at effecting personal lifestyle changes while not so good at doing the work needed to challenge a broken economic system, and vice versa for someone else.  Working together, a community unit can do both effectively.

I also agree with Jensen that we must not accept the premise that we as individuals hold the sole power to make our existence as humans more or less sustainable, and that our mechanisms for doing so are choosing what products we do and don't buy.  I feel embarrassed that I spend any time worrying about making sure the hallway light is off when I'm not using it as I drive by empty strip mall parking lots lit up like daylight, using far more energy than my hallway light ever will.

Big Brother is WatchingBut I also know that corporations, governments, etc. are made up of individuals just like us, and so I believe that there is power in changing individual minds, modeling sustainable living for each other, and planting seeds of possibility.  It may not be as powerful as getting that strip mall to change their lighting practices, but it's not nothing.

Jensen concludes his article by saying "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."  I know a number of people who believe that they're doing both - that by navigating systems of oppressive power well, they are playing a role in confronting them, changing them, and even taking them down.

It may come down to the math of the situation, in equations where we can't know all of the variables right now.  If enough people effecting personal lifestyle change or working within broken systems is enough to actually make a lasting difference, then we're all set.  If it turns out that the systems of power and corporate/governmental destruction and resource consumption are far more effective than we could ever hope to stop, then we better hope that our individual decisions along the way were personally rewarding, as memories of a life well-lived in the face of a world breaking around us may be the only reward we get.

How does the math work out for you?  Is personal lifestyle change worthwhile and effective?

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

5 thoughts on “Is personal lifestyle change effective?”

  1. I think the math here comes down to a simple issue of possibility. As in: "What is it possible for you, personally, to accomplish towards the end of improving society."

    Becoming the change you wish to see in the world is a necessary precursor to fighting for social change -- I'm sure we all remember hearing about Al Gore's energy-INefficient home -- it makes him look hypocritical for asking everyone else to take that same issue seriously.

    The author is correct that personal change ALONE may not change the world -- but for some people, it's all we have. I have a family of four now; It is not feasible to think that I could go to work for Public Citizen, or spend lots of time & resources lobbying (or fighting against lobbyists). I call my Rep / Senator when I can (if the issue matters to me) and I try to spread awareness and stay informed about the things I care about.

    But what I AM capable is hardly futile -- at the very least, I am reducing my contribution to exacerbating the problem.

  2. thanks for your treatment of the jensen essay. i read it some time back but didn't take much time to reflect on it.... as one who has been tilting at large corporations all the while being part of them -- i'm totally frustrated at this point in time.... the particular corporation and industry i work for now -- is chillingly fascist -- i offer this not as a euphemism but as a statement of disturbs me deeply --- cause this isn't what i signed up for....

    the feedback i get from colleagues at my feeble and passive aggressive attempts at confrontation is: "right on man", "keep doing what you are doing" .....

    how to change the beast? by law, the CEO is beholden to the shareholder -- else they find themselves out of work -- a couple weeks back I was able to attend a phenomenal lecture by economist john ikerd.... one of the key take-aways he left me with -- in regard to creating a sustainable future -- is the need to cleave corporations from politics and strip corporations from "person-hood." needless to say i am left feeling even more hopeless:

    i find myself over time becoming more polarized and sympathetic towards jensens line of thinking -- but simultaneously terrified of where the trail of his thinking leads....

    the only possible out i see -- is re-creating worker owned coops and corporations -- whereby the workers own the means of production (not likely with the means of production being so massive and $$$$)

    miss you, thanks for letting me vent 🙂

  3. The last question -- Is personal lifestyle change worthwhile and effective? -- struck me as a particularly American and western question. The whole notion of "personal lifestyle change" brings the focus on the self, the I, the ego. Embracing this as a credo can often make of the embracer a self-satisfied smug-let.

    And that further alienates those who don't, or can't, make said "personal lifestyle changes."

    I'd much prefer we do something a little less egocentric. At least call what we do by a less self-centered name. Take out the "I" but in the "we." That would make this middle aged cynic very happy.

  4. Thanks to all for reading and commenting!

    Aaron: thanks for your comments. Re Al Gore, this touches on my point nicely: he may be a hypocrite, but does that necessarily make him any less effective? Does his considerable personal resources make him even more effective in some regard?

    Cheech: I'm grateful for your work, frustrating as it may be. Maybe you would find some relief in exploring the terrifying trail more fully, if only to convince yourself that it's not what's right for you?

    Jean: you obviously weren't standing over my shoulder when I wrote and then cut out the two paragraphs of guilty disclaimers about what a privilege it is to even be able to ask these questions, let alone do something about it. And yet, as American and Western as the questions may be, they still feel important to me - after all, aren't the small lot of us responsible for a good lot of the destruction and chaos in the world right now?


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