I Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident

July 22, 2009 Leave a comment

As I sat down to write this morning, I was pulled in two different directions. And laughingly realized (again) that I am pulled, actually, toward creating the bridge between them. Recently, Ellen Gurzinsky posted a fascinating article on her Facebook wall by Derrick Jensen called Upping the Stakes: Forget Shorter Showers – Why Personal Change Does not Equal Political Change. Jensen describes in detail that we become convinced that our individual actions will be enough to address major issues like climate change – and in so doing, stop short of addressing the deeper structural issues at play, and the main culprits – capitalism, industry and agriculture. And so he advocates for changing our focus to structural activism.

I also read a fabulous article about a retreat Pema Chodron did in Seattle this week, in which she talked about Boddhisatva practice – and specifically about the importance of not “getting hooked” with emotional reactions that lead to our own and others’ suffering. She describes that this way of being in the world creates real transformation. And in her amazing way, leads us in the direction of personal transformation to bring about transformation in the world.

Jensen’s article in Orion led to a firestorm of comments – mostly rejecting Jensen’s call to work toward structural change, emphasizing the importance of personal change leading to “societal” change. Again, his article seems to push us toward another either/or moment – when we create a divide between personal transformation and structural change.

And so I have been left wondering this: do we need to do one or the other? I’m thinking about the call in the 70s and 80s to recognize that “the personal is political.” And yet it seems that the personal is not enough if the structures remain in place. So time for a both/and approach.  Can’t we take shorter showers and also take strategic action to dismantle these structures? Might the key be to not stop at the personal actions we take – to work to make the connections, learn where the real leverage points are and move into actions that may not be as comfortable, while we continue to turn off the water sooner? And in the other direction, to not let the water run endlessly while we get dressed in the morning for a day of activism? Are there other bridges we can build between these approaches?

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  • Curtis says:

    I was particularly compelled by Jensen’s piece, in light of some of the connections he makes between tendencies to take personal action instead of being political and being consumers before being citizens. Benjamin Barber takes this position as well in his book Consumed. The point is made that as consumers, we can “opt out” as a means of resistance, while as citizens we are more prone to “speak up.” I think that is the real danger of personal action that happens in place of political action – silence, retreat, lack of movement. At some point we have to connect the dots. And of course, it should not be an either/or proposition. In this complex world we need to be taking all routes to change.

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