Do Personal Changes Matter? Yes, yes, yes!

>> Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do personal changes matter?

That seems to be the big question circulating around the green blogosphere this month.

First, there was the Orion Magazine article, Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change, in which the author asserts:

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.
Then there was this article in the New Yorker where Elizabeth Kolbert criticizes No Impact Man's "eco-stunt:"
So committed is Beavan to his claim of zero impact that he can’t—or won’t—see the deforestation for the trees. He worries a great deal about the environmental consequences of Michelle’s tampon use and the shrink-wrap around a block of cheese. But when it comes to his building’s heating system, which is apparently so wasteful that people are opening windows in the middle of winter, he just throws up his hands.
(Reading this article, I wanted to rush to No Impact Man's defense - his experiment did matter because of all the people he has influenced...Me! for one. But Kolbert also describes the eco-stunts of a couple other popular environmentalist writers, and I was completely turned off by her descriptions of Vanessa Farquharson, whose book I had on my to-read list.)

Grist mentioned the Kolbert article twice (here and here), and also ran a piece about Henry David Thoreau referring to the same biography of Thoreau that Kolbert discusses in her critique of eco-stunts (Walden Pond being the first and most famous eco-stunt).

Fake Plastic Fish took up the argument on Wednesday, listing several bloggers responses to the Orion article, and then interviewed Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse for her post today. Diane defends using consumer power as a political act by stating:
For thirty years, my focus was really on public policy. I thought passing laws to address environmental issues was the most effective way to make a difference. We still need stronger laws, and enforcement of regulations on the books. But the last few years, I've become convinced that the marketplace moves faster than the halls of Congress! Companies fight legislation tooth and nail - but consumer dollars are their lifeblood. If we use our money to make a difference, we can accelerate the transition to a cleaner, greener world.

So what are my thoughts on the subject?

1) Personal change leads to political change.

Personal change probably doesn't matter very much. The author of the Orion article points out that the majority of waste and energy use comes from commercial, industrial, and agricultural sources, so personal changes are just a drop in the bucket.

That's true, but the people who are taking shorter showers, recycling, and bicycling are also the people who are lobbying for water, land, and resource conservation and proposing solutions like cap and trade. Personal change is like a gateway drug. You start with the easy stuff by greening your own life, and pretty soon you're looking around for some harder drugs to ease your addiction: "Now how can I help my office go green? Or my school? Or my city? Or my country?"

I've pointed out before that real wide-scale changes will require organization and policy change, but those big changes start with individuals making a choice to live differently.

2) Corporations are people too.

We have a tendency as environmentalists to anthropomorphize corporations, labeling them as "good" and "evil" as if a corporation has the ability to make good or bad decisions. Corporations do not make decisions. They are made up of individuals who make decisions - ordinary people who are just as capable as you or I to make personal choices about water use, energy consumption, and waste management. But whereas my decision to go green affects very few beyond my small sphere of influence, if the executives of Walmart decide to go green, it has a monumental impact.

And why would the executives of Walmart decide to go green? Maybe in part because they care about the environment, but it's more likely because they recognize the economic value of a green image and green products. They are responding to consumer demand.

The author of the Orion article doesn't want us to label ourselves as consumers because "we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming." He's right that we have many other "resistance tactics" available to us, but it's wrong to say that consuming is an invalid method of protest.

We are consumers, and because we consume, we have immense power. We can choose to buy a product because of the materials it's made of. We can choose to buy a product because it's less toxic. We can choose to buy a product because it's made in a safe, fair environment. And we can choose not to buy a product at all.

We do have power as consumers, and when enough people choose to wield that power, the marketplace listens. Corporations have to listen, or they will die.

3) It matters to me.

I made my very first environmentally related decision twelve years ago when I became a vegetarian. It was a major lifestyle change, but I didn't do it because I expected my actions to have a huge rippling effect or that my personal choice would change the meat industry. I did it because I personally could not feel good about eating an animal that was raised and slaughtered inhumanely. My decision to give up meat was not based on a desire to change the world. I became a vegetarian because I believed it was the right thing to do.

Every eco-related choice I've made since then has followed the same line of reasoning. I hope that my actions will influence others. I try to be involved in my community so I can effect change not just in my own life, but in the world around me. But what matters most is that I'm being the best person I can be.

I intended to write this post last week for one of my Weekend Ramblings, but I never got around it it. So many people have blogged on this topic since then that I feel like I'm late to the party, and it would have been easy to say, "There's nothing left to say." But because I believe in the power of personal change, I believe my voice matters. So here I am, adding my individual voice to all the others, asserting that my changes matter. Your changes matter. Our collective changes can make a better, greener world.

Photo by Marco Belluci

This post was included in the Carnival of the Green #195 at EcoTechDaily.


Green Bean August 27, 2009 at 11:47 PM  

Hear hear! I completely agree. I love Diane's quote that the marketplace moves faster than Congress. And, like you, I just couldn't live at odds with my principles. Great post.

Michael August 28, 2009 at 9:27 AM  

Not to get too political, but consumers can definitely impact corporations by making personal choices. Look at the campaign by Color of Change against Fox New's Glenn Beck: Whether you agree with the campaign or not it's had a huge effect with 35 advertisers pulling their ads from his show and some pulling all their ads from the whole network.

Maren Hansen August 28, 2009 at 11:27 PM  

Great post. I had this discussion with my sister after reading Garbageland. She basically said that she felt like her being environmentally responsible was worthless since it was "a drop in the bucket" as you said. I told her that change must start somewhere and reminded her of Ghandi's quote: "Be the change that you want to see in the world." Again, some great, concise thoughts.

Mary A August 29, 2009 at 1:34 PM  

Exactly! As long as we are looking to the external world to validate our reality - as in, "what proof is there that I make a difference?" - then we will remain powerless. The statement, "It matters to me," is simple but powerful. To have power, one must take power.

Cherie August 29, 2009 at 1:39 PM  

I agree; we as individuals can and do make a difference through our day-to-day choices. We not only cause change through our choices as consumers, we also affect other individuals, like dominos. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does”

Steph @ Greening Families September 5, 2009 at 9:55 AM  

Here is one (more) example of a topic where I think children have a truer understanding than adults. As we started talking with our kids about treating the earth with respect, they got lots of ideas of things we could do. Their first reaction was, "What can we change?" and they never doubted that it would make a difference. I've been amazed at the ripple effect of our changes and have realized that no change is made in isolation.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper September 5, 2009 at 9:57 PM  

Thanks, everyone, for your comments! Just the amount of people that have risen up to respond to this issue shows that personal changes matter.

lin May 18, 2010 at 10:15 AM  
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