Forget Shorter Showers

Came across this amazing piece by author Derrick Johnson, written for a publication called Orion that I haven’t heard of until now but will probably be keeping a very close eye on.

This is exactly the reason why I’m careful to try and frame my choice to go zero waste as one that is due to my mental/physical health (I’m currently seeking out the source of my chronic fatigue, or at least just getting a hard diagnosis for it, and having fewer things in my life to contend with does definitely help on bad days) and lifestyle proclivities first, environmental concerns second. Why I want to talk about that in conjunction with real activisms. Because let’s face it, ZW isn’t great activism. At all. If you truly care about the fate of the planet and everything that lives on it, you damn well better be fed up with “business as usual”. It’s a depressing notion, but when you think about it… this isn’t about being right, being cutting-edge, being smug, being fashionable or chic. This is about making sure we don’t commit biological, agricultural, and industrial suicide. Sure, eliminating plastics and industrial chemicals from our homes is likely going to improve our health and the health of our kids. But what does that say about our priorities when we’re sitting pretty while our neighbors are still sick and dying? The buck should never just stop with us.

This is the first part of the essay. I highly encourage you to read the rest:

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

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. 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. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption—residential, by private car, and so on—is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”

Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.


2 thoughts on “Forget Shorter Showers

  1. You should read Depletion and Abundance. It’s kind of radical – enough that it made me a little uncomfortable, since I don’t intend to start living off the grid any time soon – but she makes an excellent argument about local activism. You might also enjoy Culture Jam. My decision to reduce my waste is also highly personal, since it drastically helps with my emotional well-being, but I also care deeply about the environment, and I’m not really sure how to go about convincing the world to change…


    • Thanks for the book recommendations, I’m always on the lookout for more. :]

      As a purely lifestyle thing, off-grid living fascinates me (and the tiny house movement, though that satiates a design and architecture kick too), but yeah, I don’t see it being very useful outside of itself.

      I think ZW does have the ability to be a conversation starter to start raising awareness among people who don’t have the environment anywhere on their radar. But you’re right, going beyond the personal is a bit stymying. I’ve looked into activist groups in my area or other ways to get involved politically and haven’t really found anything… I’ll keep looking, though, and until then I hope to start doing beach cleanups. I’ll definitely post more about getting further involved as I well, figure it out, lol.


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