Can Individual Actions Create Sustainability?

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Derrick Jensen (I apologize for the earlier misidentification of the author), writing in Orion Magazine, doesn’t think so, or, more accurately, he thinks only conscious acts of political opposition can work. I agree in part. Unsustainability is fundamentally a result of failure to understand the world social-economic system and to act solely to solve an apparent problem in a miniscule part of it. Individual acts to reduce their impact on the environment do help in the short run, but fail to address the parts of the system responsible for its failings. System dynamicists call this pattern, “shifting-the-burden.”

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?

Jensen argues that it is the culture and political economy that fool us into thinking we are doing our part. I do most certainly agree. He uses the term, double bind, to describe the apparent choices we have. His use is not quite the same as what Gregory Bateson meant when he coined the phrase. The actions Dempsey discusses are simply not effective, not mutually contradictory as in a double bind. Bateson was one of the first to recognize the systemic character of many of life’s dilemma’s, saying,”Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.”

Jensen finishes with a call to act against the system that has made us into consumers, not citizens, and has lulled us into a false belief that we are doing all that we need to.

We can follow the example of those who remembered that 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 think this is also another ineffective “solution,” unless coupled to a fundamental change in the culture. We and the institutions that Dempsey would have us confront and take down are all part of the same system, operating on the same set of deep-rooted cultural beliefs and norms. If we throw away these institutions, without a simultaneous transformation of these beliefs and norms, we would be left to wander about without anything to guide us toward a new system that works. Revolutions fail to create a new order more often than not for this reason. Sustainability, the target of his article without explicit mention, needs such a transformation. My approach in Sustainability by Design, given the immense power of the entrenched interests and our modernist beliefs, is to sneak change in subversively so none will notice until it is too late to stem the new incoming tide.