Forget personal responsibility?

July 16, 2009


by Kendra Langdon Juskus

The most recent issue of Orion Magazine (a forum for exploring the intersection of the natural and cultural worlds) features a column by writer-activist Derrick Jensen, entitled “Forget Shorter Showers.” The piece is a controversial one, generating lots of lively discussion on Orion’s website. Its main tenet is that lifestyle changes adopted on an individual level are powerless to change creation’s trajectory toward destruction, and that more organized forms of resistance to that destruction are crucial for any change to happen.

Orion magazine“Personal change doesn’t equal social change,” Jensen asserts, explaining the four main problems with relying on personal changes to a more simple lifestyle: prioritizing personal change assumes “that humans inevitably harm their landbase;” it places blame for environmental degradation on the individual, rather than on corporate industrial and municipal parties; it accepts that we are consumers and limits our action to the realm of consumption; and its logic ends in suicide (in order to do the least harm to creation, we must disappear).

With assertions like these (and a lack of clear alternatives to the problems presented), Jensen’s article begs for engagement and discussion. But neither Jensen nor Orion Magazine profess a faith perspective, and Christians will find that perspective critical in any contructive engagement with this article. So in addition to inviting your responses to Jensen’s article, over the next week we will be featuring responses from well-respected Christian voices in the creation care movement. Stay tuned to be in on the conversation.

Read Derrick Jensen’s “Forget Shorter Showers” at Orion Magazine.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Macnish July 22, 2009 at 6:49 am

Jensen starts by making a reference to, among others, Wilberforce, and a number of analogies do stand out. For one, no-one would have taken Wilberforce seriously if he had owned plantations and kept slaves. His own integrity to his cause was necessary to its achievement. Secondly, if all Wilberforce had done was refused to keep slaves (or bought a plantation and then used a hired workforce instead of slaves) then he would have had little to no impact on the views of society at large.

Jensen’s point, as I read it, is not that we should cease to live in a manner that is integrated with our desires, but that this alone is not sufficient. From the responses to his article, including by the President of Flourish, I take it that this is not in question. However, Jensen’s point at the beginning of his article is that environmental campaigns misdirect attention from corporations to individual responsibility. That is, if all campaigns succeed in doing is changing our own lifestyles then the impact on the environment will be minimal (although not negligible). Jensen’s point is rather that campaigns should focus more on how we can and should impact corporate environmental abuses.

The question then is not whether I should be living an environmentally simple life. This is beyond question. Rather the question is what next? To return to Wilberforce, if I have ceased to use slaves on my plantation, now what do I do? To continue to focus our efforts on stopping other individuals using slaves is good, but will have a limited impact. More to the point is introducing laws that will ban slavery outright. The same is true of the environmental movement.

Personal integrity? Certainly. Just personally integrity? Certainly not. We need to move beyond informing individuals how to live more environmentally friendly lives (without ceasing to inform them) to engaging with government and instituting laws that will bring about the end of abuses that far exceed the damages inflicted by individuals.

Paul Drake July 23, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I agree with Kevin’s assessment.

As Christians we are certainly concerned about whole persons, but when we embark on engaging the world’s many social problems and institutions, we have to deal with them as we find them. And the basic data cited by Jensen shows that water scarcity, global warming, and will not ultimately be solved even by a total shift in individual behavior, apart from larger institutions like business and government signing on as well. And that seems less likely to occur apart from intentional pressure by concerned, organized citizens.

To denigrate such political solutions as “shortcuts” in favor of individual actions, as Rusty Pritchard does in his ESA response to Jensen’s article, misses the urgency and scope of these problems, and ultimately has an unhealthy focus on the self and in keeping Kosher instead of loving our neighbors by using our talents to help guide our larger institutions to greater justice and responsibility.

snakeranger July 24, 2009 at 12:03 am

Actually, it’s a hopeless cause. The Bible says that the earth will be destroyed anyway. So why all the fuss about it? Have you ever heard any of your brothers & sisters in the Lord tell you that? I have, countless times. And I’ve come to realize that they are correct.

And Mr. Jensen is correct, too–individual action will never make a huge difference, either. I mean, really–no social trend, no moral manipulation has ever turned the tide of culture totally around.

Will political action help? Since the political engine is turned by capital, there’s no way for a cause that doesn’t extract tangible, cashable resources to last in a capitalist society. And the governments of socialist countries are subject to those things called social trends that I mentioned above. Not to mention corruption. The heart of man is corrupt.

So, changing the way we humans treat the environment IS a hopeless cause.

Are you depressed yet? Why, then, would the Lord charge us to care for the earth? Well, why would He charge us to feed the poor? After all, didn’t Jesus tell us “the poor you will always have with you”? God comes right out and tells us that poverty is yet another hopeless cause.

Here’s my take, as an environmental educator, a cultural resource manager, and of course, a Christian. I’ve learned that, the more I strive to understand ecology, the more complexity turns up. The harder we in resource management try to restore native ecosystems in our parks & refuges, the more complications we encounter. In our efforts to eradicate exotic species like Crested Wheatgrass, for example, we risk eradicating our native grass populations if the timing of our safest and most effective herbicide applications is off by a few days. Further, we have to ask ourselves–what exactly DID a pristine native prairie in our region look like?

Making a dent in poverty is just as complicated an issue. Yet we are called to serve in these areas. Why? One potential fruit of dedicating your life to a hopeless cause is learning humility. And to learn to be thankful for every little blessing. And realizing who we are working for (work as unto the Lord). And learning the joy of serving. Not to mention plain, old obedience.

In every area of our Christian lives, we are called to give our hearts over to be changed, transformed into Jesus’ image. Jesus was Jesus in all of His actions–both personal and political. He wasn’t greedy. He didn’t let those loaves and fishes go to waste. He challenged the authorities fearlessly. But He Himself told us to first “seek the kingdom of God”. So, first seek the Lord and invest time in staying close to Him. Then, pray for hearts and cultures and leaders to change. All the while, living the kind of humble, thankful, servant lifestyle that walks gently on the creation that belongs to our Father.

Kelsey Jones-Casey July 31, 2009 at 6:57 pm

Be careful. Derrick Jensen does not say that it is hopeless! Rather, he says that changes in personal consumption should not be conflated with political resistance. I agree. Taking shorter showers may be counter to our cultural, but I don’t think that it is political resistance. That doesn’t mean that the choice to reduce our use of electricity is not a moral one; we must remember that the poor and oppressed pay for the externalizes of our electricity production (for example, read this: But Jensen is right: reducing individuals’ and families’ consumption won’t end climate change. Don’t lose hope! But do advocate for public transportation systems, denser living environments, local food production, and safe conditions for factory workers.

admin July 31, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Interestingly, in another Orion magazine article, Beyond Hope, Derrick Jensen argues exactly the opposite: he says hope is what keeps environmentalists from being sufficiently radical to make anything happen. Warning: the article is laced with profanity and graphic images.

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