Ethical Living, Personal Choices and Political Change

I recently read Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change by Derrick Jensen. He argues that that individuals making environmentally appropriate choices as consumers is problematic for a range of reasons. He is particularly hard on the concept of simple living as a political act. I’m going to look at the reasons he gives, and then take the argument a little further. Many people, either explicitly or not, see simple living as a more ethical (or sometimes moral) choice of behaviour. I will show that this individualized concept of ‘ethical living’ is itself ethically problematic, though this conclusion depends on accepting at least some of Jensen’s premises.

So why does personal change not produce the results we might want? Jensen notes several instances where individual consumers, even taken together as a group, are not the major users of a resource or the major contributors to a problem. An example given is that consumers take shorter showers in reaction to water shortages, but that residential water consumption is only a small percentage of the total used – most going to industry and agriculture.  His article does not cite sources as such, but this seems consistent with the figures supplied by the USGS here. A similar situation exists here in Australia with agriculture  (if not manufacturing) using significantly more water than domestic consumers.  The point is that the actions of an individual, in this case, how long your showers are, are not what is causing the problem, directly at least. So in one sense, certain forms of individual action might be just plain ineffective at achieving their stated aims.

I think there is a bit more to this that it seems. In terms of effectiveness, and depending on what conditions you place on a hypothetical scenario, very different outcomes might be likely. Consider the idea, that personal change on that part of individuals can’t affect certain changes because it isn’t individuals who contribute to the bulk of the problem, whereas industry or corporations does. In a nutshell, even if all consumers cut back, industry rolls on and the destruction continues. However, I think this is a problem of degree rather than anything else. I have to ask, what is industry making and who are they selling it to? If enough individuals stopped consuming certain products, then surely the industries that support the manufacture of those products must either adapt or ultimately fail. So why don’t they? A large part of this in the cases mentioned above is that not enough around the world people stop consuming enough different products. Consider water use in the US. To reduce overall water usage, not only do consumers in that country need to use less water, but consumers everywhere need to stop buying products manufactured/grown using that water. Hypothetically, if everyone in the world had shorter showers but still consumed like crazy, we would still face water shortages. Alternatively, if enough people everywhere stopped consuming to a great enough extent, then maybe our showers could be as long as we liked. Where water use in agriculture is concerned, there is a possible Malthusian factor though – maybe we have too many hungry mouths to use less water. I would dispute that this is necessarily the case as it is at least possible that agriculture in the US could make more efficient use of water. A similar situation might obtain for problematic areas such as carbon pollution.  What should be noted is the sheer enormity of such a change in behavior and massive unwinding of our current economic system that it might entail. As I’ve speculated elsewhere though, degrowth does not have to be such a bad thing. Clearly if enough people stopped consuming enough different things, then something would change. So what is exactly is Jensen getting at?

Jensen presents further reasons why the approach of simple living as a political act fails.

The first is that it is based upon the idea that humans inevitably damage their environment. Now, I’m not an expert on whether or not this is, as Jensen states, a ‘flawed notion’. But I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility that it isn’t necessarily true.This notion certainty assumes a very one dimensional and non-dynamic conception of ‘environment’ – as if it s a separate thing from us humans.

The second reason is that “it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual”. This is, I feel, at least slightly contentious, because while individuals are not directly responsibly for certain things, they do play a role in maintaining the political status quo. Yes, individual choices as consumers don’t lead to social change – but many people making these choices are quite happy with that arrangement and thus should bear some responsibility.

The third reason is that accepting the definition of ‘consumer’ as a political choice cuts off other legitimate avenues of social and political resistance. I am not sure if it is the case that if people think of their ethical and environmental choices in terms of them being one sort of consumer or another, that this leads to them eschewing other forms of political expression. But if it is the case that you think that your choice of bottled water or footwear makes a bigger difference to the environment than who you vote for, I’m intuitively inclined to say that you are mistaken.

The fourth reason given is a little more complicated. If every action in an industrialized economy is destructive and the best we can come up with is non-participation in this economy, then the ultimate form of non-participation must be death. (That’s my reading of it anyway). I’m not sure how to call this one. But I do appreciate that for some, the symbolism would seem quite compelling.

Jensen’s claim is that simple living cannot produce broad and deep social and political change. I think that if enough people everywhere lived simply enough, that profound changes would occur. In the context of a finite system, this must be at least likely. The point that Jensen is driving at, is whether or not simple living as one’s only political act will lead to widespread change. I’m not sure I can properly test this claim, but offer the following observation. Unless your choice to live simply, in and of itself and without any further political or social action on your part, convinces a lot of other people everywhere to live simply, then the answer must be that your act will not.

If your aim in living simply is to follow something like the Categorical Imperative, then it can seem like your choice is nonetheless justified. This is because if we universalize the choice to consume less, we have (for those who believe in degrowth at least) an acceptable outcome. However, if we universalize the idea that individual choices in consumption would be the only political act one would undertake, then we have a situation where adverse political and social outcomes are possible. Simple living does not, in and of itself, negate the possibility of fascist or feudal political systems – even if it did somehow achieve the desired environmental ends. And that is before we even include the possibility of the choices we make as consumers being subject to duress, structural restriction or manipulation. The disconnect between patterns of consumption and the political situation is a key weakness with the idea that if everyone just buys less everything will be OK. If you do not address the politics, then things might not be.

Likewise, a simplified utilitarian analysis of simple living  as the sole political act indicates that it is possibly problematic (even if we leave out the possibility of problematic politics). If we assume that the this act does not lead to positive changes, then surely it does not do much for ‘utility’, however you want to measure it. The utility of an individual act of living simply is different to the hypothetical utility of everyone living simply.

This is where the other key mistake in reasoning regarding simple living could be. If you live simply enough, then yes, it might well be the case that if everyone did it, that the environmental outcome would be positive. But they don’t, and they won’t just because you do. Unless there is reason to think that your choice will lead to many people making the same choice, you are not actually achieving much at all and it is a form of ‘magical thinking’ to believe otherwise. If you thing you have an ethical or moral obligation to hep the environment and this is the only thing that you do, I would argue that you have not met this obligation.

So there you have it.  If simple living – the act of an individual deliberately consuming less – is the only political act this individual undertakes, there is no guarantee that environmental, social or political changes will follow. This is because a reduction in consumption has to be very widespread to even have a chance at achieving these aims and it is unlikely to become widespread without additional political or social action. In addition, cutting oneself off from political participation, except for choices in consumption, even if it were widely adopted, would be no protection against adverse political and social outcomes. The effects of your choice as an individual, or even a large community, should not be confused or conflated with the hypothetical effects of everyone living as you do.

None of this means that there is no point to living simply and sustainably, and being more mindful of what you consume – it’s a choice that many people enjoy and it does help. But, by itself,  it only helps a little. If you desire political or social change, or if you think you have a deeper ethical or moral obligation to the environment, then (at a minimum) you need to convince more people everywhere to live as you do. This means that your choices as a consumer are no longer your sole political act. And this, I think Jensen would agree,  would be a good thing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s