"If Everybody Thought the Way You Do . . ."
"If everyone thought the way you do, we'd never be able to change anything." This is the standard reply to questions like these.
This answer is nonsensical. People think the way they think. You change the way they think by influencing them, somehow. Whether I recycle a bottle, or drive less to work has no impact on what others do unless they can see me and I act as a model somehow. In the privacy of my own space, lifestyle activism is essentially meaningless.
But what about "modeling." If I do it, then other people might do it, and then we might have a revolution. For example, if we are in the 1970s and I put a solar panel up on my roof, then other people will put one up too, and we'll have a wonderful solar world!
Oh, yeah, that didn't work so well , did it?
Okay, but if I buy a Prius, and other people see me buying a Prius, then it'll become a fad and everyone will buy a Prius, and that'll save the world. See, when gas prices went up, other people saw how smart I was to buy a Prius and they were jealous. . .
Oh, yeah, that didn't work very well, did it? People mostly went back to buying big cars when the gas price went down again . . . .
Okay, it's not Totally Useless
It is likely that in some cases, some forms of lifestyle activism have had some limited impact. For example, people who recycled probably helped create the critical mass of people necessary to move towards laws and systems for recycling.
A problem with recycling, however, is that it really isn't a highly effective way of reducing waste. There are many other much more effective approaches. In part because recycling fit into the kind of lifestyle activism we (middle-class) folks like to promote, that's what came to the top as a solution.
In this way lifestyle activism approach can push us in the problematic directions favoring solutions that fit easily with the way we already live.
There is not a lot of evidence that, in the absence of new laws or incentives, lifestyle activists can make that much of a difference. The 1970s solar debacle is a great example of this.
Interlude: Hospital Meat and the Carbon Footprint>
A few days ago, I heard an interview with a doctor who was spending a great deal of time trying to get his hospital to use less meat in its food. While he was trying to improve hospital nutrition, his core aim was apparently to reduce global warming.
If patients in this hospital ate less meat, then there would be a few less cows in the world, and this would reduce the "carbon footprint" of the hospital. For example, there would be fewer cow farts. The report was quite celebratory about what a great project this was.
Identity, Activism, and Comfort Zones
There is a lot of evidence that people become activists because being an activist is a core part of their identity . For example, studies of the 1960s found that activists were often raised by parents who were activists or who encouraged them to think of social engagement as a central aspect of their lives.
The problem with this is that many people who see activism as central to "who" they are naturally engage in actions that integrate well with what they already do. In other words, we look for forms of activism that fit with our current lives and cultural understandings.
We want to be able to stay within our comfort zones and still feel like we are "making a difference."
The Uses of Self-Delusion
It serves our purposes well to lie to ourselves about the effects of lifestyle activism. In actual fact, many of us recycle and buy priuses and go to marches that have no coherent strategic aims behind them (but that allow us to hang out with other people like ourselves) because they are part of our social life . Buying a Prius, or biking to work instead of driving, or having a compost pile in our backyard are forms of cultural capital. We can feel good about ourselves, and others will see how virtuous we are.
If we told ourselves the truth about what we are doing, if we actually acknowledged that most of our "activism" is about us, and not really about trying to make a significant difference in the world or for people who really suffer, then it wouldn't serve its identity purpose anymore (this is an old anthropological argument).
Lifestyle activism only works if we maintain the lie that it is "activism" instead of a form of individual investment on the same level of buying a nice pair of shoes or getting a hip haircut.
Interlude: Obama Better Watch Out!
A few weeks ago National Public Radio gave an extended report about a group of activists in a small upstate New York town who had been meeting at the same streetcorner together to shout at traffic and wave anti-war signs every Sunday since 9/11.
This group had decided that because Obama had been elected president, they were willing to give him enough benefit of the doubt and discontinue their weekly protests. "But if he starts backsliding," one of the lead protesters declared, "then we'll be back!"
The NPR reporter attended their last protest, where people sounded sad that they wouldn't be getting together with each other every week anymore.
Purity and Display
Most lifestyle activism seems to take the form it does because it allows (mostly middle-class professionals) to feel like they can make a difference in the world while at the same time purifying their lives . Every deposit of old food into the compost pile is a re-enactment of "who" they are, of how their life maintains its wholeness in a complicated, dirty, seemingly uncontrollable world.
Conversely, not recycling that bottle can feel like a horrible, self- and other-polluting act. Quite a lot of people feel real guilt if they actually throw a can in the trash.
At the same time, lifestyle activism is often an opportunity for display. Others can see your solar panel or wind turbine. You can brag about your compost pile and educate others about how to create one. Every time you drive your Prius around town, others can see how virtuous you are.
(A key reason that Priuses sell better than hybrid Civics is that Priuses clearly display the fact they are hybrids. A hybrid Civic may achieve the same purpose, but doesn't state that fact so clearly to others.)
Interlude: Washing Plastic Bags
At an activity I attended a few years ago, I sat behind two women who were talking excitedly about their ecologically sustainable kitchens.
They literally spent more than fifteen minutes talking about how they washed their plastic bags, and how important that was, and what kind of racks they used to dry them, and etc. . . .
Lifestyle Action is About Privilege
Lifestyle activism assumes that you have the resources to make lifestyle choices. You need money to be able to buy a Prius instead of a "beater" car. You need money to eat organic every day. You need leisure time to maintain a compost pile that you don't really need.
Lifestyle activism is an expression of privilege. It represents the capacity to spend time and resources doing things that don't actually matter in any direct way for you or your family in service of your own identity construction.
If you work two jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over your head, you just don't have time for this.
Lifestyle Activism is a Subtle Critique of Less Virtuous "Others"
People who eat crappy food and drive a polluting cars are more "dirty" and less "virtuous" than lifestyle activists. They don't really "understand" what they are doing. They don't "care" enough. They don't really "understand" that they should be taking their time to create community gardens or joining a community farm co-op.
People who don't think it matters that much if they own a big car, or who throw away bottles are a key problem with our world. We need to educate them to see the light. And, not surprisingly, middle-class professional activists are often focused on "education" as the solution to social problems (and modeling for others, of course, is a good start).
In this way, lifestyle activism serves to separate "us" from the unwashed masses of "them."
Interlude: Celebrating Ecological Balance
When I lived in Ann Arbor, the local paper ran a big spread in the "local" section on a couple who were part of a new ecological "balance" movement. Instead of getting rid of all their cars, they had only one car. They had a smaller house to reduce their energy use. They used a hand mower instead of a gas one. Etc.
I knew this couple through a friend. Like many similar people, they carried with them a strong sense of their own virtuousness, and liked to talk about the importance of ecologically sound lives.
Control in an Uncontrollable World
The lie of lifestyle activism also allows people to believe they have control in an uncontrollable world . Not only can they purify their own space and life, they can feel like they are contributing significantly to a purification of the larger world. The horrors of environmental devastation and desperate poverty can seem less overwhelming if, every day, I can be doing something significant to act for change.
In fact, lifestyle activism allows people to feel individually more powerful. They matter. All by themselves. Their lifestyle embodies of their capacity to make a difference, to do things to hold the horrors of the world outside my door at bay.
An Industry to Support the Lie
Corporate America loves the lie of lifestyle activism, of course, and does everything it can do to support it. The "greenwashing" trend is a perfect example. The idea that you can help the world by buying the right brand of coffee, or the right dish soap feeds right in to what many people already want to believe. That's why efforts to show the ecological sustainability of one's products work on us, even though we know on a more rational level that we are likely being lied to and that the whole thing is pretty rediculous.
It is utterly ridiculous to think that Chevron or Walmart actually cares much about or does much to support the environment, for example. Many of little "green" companies (which are often owned by the larger not-green companies) aren't much better. These are marketing strategies, not social change strategies. And we know this, I think. But the marketing strategies still work. We are invested in maintaining the lie.
Social Change is About Structural Change
Real social change comes from a change in the systems that influence what people do, usually concrete incentives and disincentives, or direct regulation. If you want people to drive more fuel efficient cars, you either mandate it, or you raise the gas tax. Real social change also comes from changes in the distribution of concrete resources. The easiest way to change inner-city areas would be to increase the earned income tax credit to $25,000 a family and discontinue the drug war. The easiest way to get people to buy organic food is to convince them it's actually better for them.
It does not come from "modeling" by more virtuous people. It does NOT emerge out of the individual actions of people separated from each other except in very rare circumstances.
And structural social change comes from the generation of real power to bring these structural changes about.
Community organizing, which this series has been talking about, is one avenue for this kind of action, but it is only one.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
If you want to make real social change, and you are a middle-class professional, you will almost inevitably need to get out of your comfort zone.
It is likely that anything you actually want to do, anything that fits easily into your daily life, is not really worth much effort from a pragmatic point of view.
If you want to contribute to social change, you will need to face up to the fact that (unless you are very rich) what you do as an isolated individual DOES NOT MATTER.
You Can't Be a Saint
The point here is not about achieving sainthood, about suddenly changing your attitude and becoming a "real" social actor. In fact, the point is the reverse.
If you want to recycle, if you want to make sure you turn off the lights when you leave a room, if you want to create an elaborate compost system in your kitchen, go ahead. But do it for yourself, be honest about that, and not because it's some deep contribution to the universe.
Of course, once you acknowledge that, you may find you don't want to do it anymore. You may want to get a hip haircut instead.
So, an assignment:
--throw out a can today
--leave the light on in a room overnight
--drive your car to work when you don't have to.
Don't feel guilt. Your guilt is your own self-aggrandizement. It is your own effort to make yourself matter. Your guilt is about YOU.
Maturity is about acknowledging the world, as Alinsky said, the way it is, not the way you wish it would be.
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In my next diary, I look in more detail at the ways middle-class lifestyle activism can be destructive. I look to the example of middle-class African Americans moving in to the inner city to "reclaim" these areas, drawn from Mary Patillo's recent book, Black on the Block.