Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why Shorter Showers Matter

I love to read anything that Derrick Jensen writes. The fact that he is so controversial is all the better. His Orion articles typically generate hundreds of comments ("Forget Shorter Showers" has over 300 comments now) and they end up being as interesting to read as the articles themselves. He gets people riled up and thinking, and I like that.

This past week I read Jensen's book, What We Leave Behind (co-authored with Aric McBay). The main premise running through the book is the same as the one in the essay "Forget Shorter Showers"--that our personal actions are inconsequential. We can take shorter showers and switch to compact fluorescent bulbs but we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking we've done anything of consequence for the planet. I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe our personal actions represent the single most effective means we have available for bringing about societal change.

In What We Leave Behind, Jensen points out that even if we (in the US) were to reduce our personal waste to zero, we would each only be eliminating 1660 pounds per year. And meanwhile, our per capita share of industrial waste, nearly 26 tons, would be unchanged. So what would our personal actions have accomplished? Virtually nothing. The system would still be churning out literally tons upon tons of waste.

However, there seems to be a naivete on Jensen's part in believing that the individual is not connected to the industrial system that churns out these monumental piles of waste. It's as if for Jensen, the personal is the personal and the industrial is the industrial and never the twain shall meet. But as I've pointed out previously, we are the Machine. There's no separation between us and the Machine.

If Company A manufactures a part for Company B, and Company B uses that part in a machine that it sells to Company C, and Company C uses that machine to make a product that it sells to us "consumers", then what happens when we stop buying that product? There's no demand for the product, therefore no demand for the machine, therefore no need for the parts. The industrial waste generated from that whole stream of manufacturing is eliminated because of the actions of the "consumers".

Now, instead of talking about this in terms of waste, let's talk about it in terms of money. Why does industry exist in the first place? The fundamental reason is obviously the profit motive. Industry exists in order to profit.

How best can we influence the actions of industry? Yes, we can stage protests and sit-ins and chain ourselves to trees, but wouldn't the more logical approach be attacking the very lifeblood of the industry--its profits? If it can't profit from what it does then it can't exist (I'm consciously choosing to ignore, for this post, the whole war machine as well as the current strategy of our government and the Fed to create money out of thin air). If we as "consumers" change our behaviors and stop consuming we destroy profits and an industry's viability. It filters all the way up.

Now maybe shorter showers and compact fluorescents don't represent the best examples of this. How about we take some of the things from my list "Personal Ways to Disengage from the System": sell your car, don't buy processed foods, build passive solar homes, give up gadgets, use a clothesline, don't use airplanes, stay where you are. If you do any of those things you affect a whole stream of manufacturing practices. Granted, "you" the mere individual aren't going to make much of an impact, but collectively we can have an enormous impact.

I find it so ironic that Jensen believes his fight for the neighborhood patch of rainforest is more significant that the "shorter showers" approach, when he makes it very clear that so far their fight has been in vain. The only thing that has stopped the developer is, you guessed it, the economy. Nothing they have done (he and his neighbors) has stopped the guy. The only thing that has stopped him is that the venture has suddenly turned unprofitable. I'm not implying that activism is pointless--of course we have to stand up to these people. We have to try everything in our power to stop them. But perhaps the shorter showers approach is actually the more effective one. The developer stopped because consumers weren't buying.

Maybe even two or three years ago the shorter showers approach didn't seem like a particularly viable one. But now, with the economy teetering on the brink, it should become apparent just how much power we "consumers" have. The power not to buy. The power not to consume. It doesn't sound like much at first blush, but seriously look around at what's happening as the economy continues down this slippery slope. "Not buying" is starting to reshape the world.


  1. Brilliant! Pure logic, though still hard to grasp for tiny human brains...
    The only problem here is human psycho:
    When lots of people stop to consume, they end up as an easy target for 'elites', aka slave makers, who think they are now allowed to consume all the given up stuff, and use the idle non consumers as a cheap/free/forced labor.

  2. I don't think people who consciously disengage are in much danger of being enslaved. Those at real risk are those already suffering from the actions of the elite--those who are so impoverished that going without is not a choice but a harsh reality.

    Those of us fortunate enough to be able to consciously disengage (meaning we are acting from a very privileged position)actually occupy a position of considerable power. We're not the elites who control the world's resources, nor are we so impoverished by them that we can only focus on mere survival, as the world's poorest must do. We occupy a middle ground. If we were truly impoverished we'd be dependent on the elites for our survival and would do whatever they wanted us to in order to eat and to feed our children. The middle ground gives us much more freedom to act.

    Where I live the ground is fertile, so I can grow my own food. How can the elites challenge that? I could build a house from straw acquired from a neighboring farmer. How could the elites challenge that? If I wanted to go really crazy I could raise fiber for my clothing. What could the elites do? If my house were earth-bermed and superinsulated I could go completely off-grid. My neighbors and friends could lend me their skills and I could do likewise. Again, how could the elites touch that?

    Those of us in this privileged middle ground can help bring down the system. If we bring it down, we bring it down for all, including for our impoverished brothers and sisters. Not that that would immediately solve hunger or injustice, but it would be a beginnning.