Should Ecosocialists Stop Flying?

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A strategy based on personal change incorrectly blames powerless individuals  instead of  those who actually wield power in this system and  the system itself

Introduction, by Ian Angus

Climate and Capitalism recently featured a video of a talk I gave at a conference in England. A reader responded:

Can a person really be an environmentalist if they choose to be flying overseas for a one day conference? I truly believe that flying is no longer a luxury our world can support. With video technology it is possible for people to particpate in conferences just about anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world.

Our critique of capitalism and it destructive nature to people’s lives and the environment losses much when we are jet setting around the world offering alternatives to the existing economic models and our human interaction with our environment.

We could debate whether video technology substitutes for actual participation: in my experience it works reasonably well for delivering a speech, but cannot substitute for the formal and informal conversations, sharing ideas and building connections. I could have given my talk from home – I could not have participated in the process of movement building, which was my main reason for being there.

But the bigger question is, can we change the world by changing our personal behavior? For a strong counter-argument to the “stop flying if you want to change the world” position, I recommend the article below, from the July-August issue of Orion Magazine.



Forget Shorter Showers:
Why personal change does not equal political change

by Derrick Jensen

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?

Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well:

“For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption—residential, by private car, and so on—is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”

Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.

I want to be clear. 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.

So how, then, and especially with all the world at stake, have we come to accept these utterly insufficient responses? I think part of it is that we’re in a double bind. A double bind is where you’re given multiple options, but no matter what option you choose, you lose, and withdrawal is not an option. At this point, it should be pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive (and we shouldn’t pretend that solar photovoltaics, for example, exempt us from this: they still require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other so-called green technology).

So if we choose option one—if we avidly participate in the industrial economy—we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses.

If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses.

The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world—none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.

Besides being ineffective at causing the sorts of changes necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are at least four other problems with perceiving simple living as a political act (as opposed to living simply because that’s what you want to do).

The first is that it’s predicated on the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase. Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.

The second problem—and this is another big one—is that it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself. Kirkpatrick Sale again: “The whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth guilt trip is a myth. We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them.”

The third problem is that it accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers. By accepting this redefinition, we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.

The fourth problem is that the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.

The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned—Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States—who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. 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.


  • The answer is not quite that simple. On the one hand, I fully agree with the text: to think that consumerism can save us is to think that we can stop global warming using the same free-market logic that drove us into the problem in the first place. I also agree with the idea that consumerism is elitist and that we shouldn’t embrace this hollywoodesque fashion of the eco-hypocrite bourgeoisie. On the other hand, this doesn’t imply that we should be cynical to a point where we don’t recognize the importance of being coherent.
    I try to have an eco-friendly lifestyle, by not having a car, being vegan, avoiding flying, etc. I don’t expect this to change the world. But saying that this has little impact is not the same as saying that it has no impact at all.
    I won’t judge you if you fly to go to a conference, I guess that it is important to go personally when the point is meeting new people. In fact, I’m now planning to go to Copenhagen this December, to know what it is like to be in the climate justice movement. But I can’t help to think that we have a contradiction when we organize a conference on climate change full of guests who traveled by plain (that’s not the case here, of course).

  • Yes, I feel with Jensen he is dead right about self as consumer rather than citizen being a big problem – a screen behind which politics and business hide. But it’s harder for the powerful to hide when as individuals and communities we do not take part in the destruction and build different lives that are demonstrably good for the planet. Jensen is a little disingenuous when he rants, though he does it very well! e.g.

    “the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide”

    The Suffragettes, Gandhi and many civil rights campaigners and anti Nazi activists and many more were prepared to make such a personal sacrifice!

    BUT it is a non-sequitur regardless and contradicts Jensen’s own point that it is possible to live positively. People who do make such personal choices, I believe, are far more likely to be politically active. It’s a synergy.

    So yes, BOTH AND has to be the only answer whilst we recognise that a lack of political activism is probably the greatest threat to human (and many other forms of life) survival.

  • Paul’s remark that “If we, as environmentalists, lead the way, others will follow,” expresses exactly what’s wrong with the morally pure, individual solution argument. Not enough others will follow to make any difference, those who see themselves as role models most likely will waste time pushing these ineffective non-solutions, and the only kind of change that will be big enough to make a difference is systemic.

    For instance, by shutting down the military machine, we would get rid of a huge amount of GHG production from flying, oil use, etc., not to mention the carnage & toxic pollution. We are just not going to get there by making a good individual example.

    Thank you, Mark, for the comment about how the individual focus tends to make individually-oriented environmentalists sanctimonious towards poor or even less affluent working people, who don’t have the same options. I don’t eat meat for health reasons, but I know that it makes absolutely no difference to the factory farming industry. I also know that in many parts of the world, working people can’t be too picky about where they get their calories from, & it would be arrogant of me to say they shouldn’t eat what they don’t have the chance to get much of because I have the privilege of getting excellent nutrition without it.

  • Paul,

    I think that Jensen’s point is that and/and and either/or are both suboptimal options in the grand scheme of things. The only option with genuine value is to agitate and educate for social change. David Suzuki was criticized by a right-wing columnist in my hometown newspaper because Suzuki’s chauffeur left his limo idling while Suzuki did a TV interview. Also, Suzuki does a lot of traveling to rallies and conferences. I trust his judgment and I don’t begrudge his carbon footprint as long as he’s agitating for social change and educating people.

    The questions should be: who are you imitating and what are you accomplishing with your greenhouse gas emissions? Are you imitating apolitical, shallow rich people with their meaningless affections (SUVs, McMansions, vacations) or are you imitating activists who are trying to transform society? If you are imitating the former, then yes – do us all a favour and minimize your carbon footprint. If it’s the latter, then listen to the criticism but do what you feel is necessary to get the job done!

  • (By “individuals” I do not mean egoistic monads who are or could be totally autonomous, all on their own. In other words, I am not tacitly advocating liberal ideals — as in the U.S. constitution, and so many other structural arrangements. My ideal for individualism would consist of an interplay of the collective and the individuals — with the collectivity coming first, but only so it could serve the individuals.)

  • There can be no collective or structural changes without the participation of numerous individuals. Policies, alternative economies, and various other macro or meso level changes can’t work if individuals aren’t actively engaged in them. Societies are made of people.

  • I should add to the above statements that it is not a case of EITHER/OR (individual choice vs. social and political change). Rather, it is a matter of AND/AND – doing both – that really matters here. Make personal choices to curb your emissions – there is virtue in doing so that will affect your activism – and also be an activist against an unjust and unsustainable system. The means should accord with the ends. If the means do not accord with the ends, we risk becoming hypocrites. I do not think we can ever hope to change the world for the better if we do not start with ourselves. This is a very different thing that agreeing with capitalism, which I am against as much as any eco-socialist who ever lived. By choosing not to buy into it and its technologies on a personal level, I signal my rejection of it. Lastly, if one flies, about 3,000 lbs of C02 is put into the atmosphere, as well as water vapour, another GHG. I have not done the calculation and I think it would be very difficult if not impossible to do it, but consider that already some 300,000 people worldwide die from climate change and in the future we know this will be in the tens of millions and probably billions. To some small degree, my one flight has added to the deaths of some of those people. Certainly not as much as what a fossil fuel company does, by any means, but there is some harm caused. The key question here is whether the utilitarian perspective, that some harm to some people is okay for a greater good (attending a climate conference) is okay or not. This is an ethics question. My own answer is that it’s not okay for two reasons: 1) I see that climate conferences and talks have not changed things significantly enough to justify the CO2 spent on them; 2) more importantly, the life of just one person of that 300,000 or the future millions is important enough for me to not add to harm to that person, even if that harm is very very small on a global scale. I think that person’s life is worthwhile enough to not act in this way, _even if my choice to participate will not stop their death_. That person’s life is important, and my actions are important enough. We cannot use this utilitarian calculation to measure things because if we did, we could excuse a great many horrible acts on the same basis. A good analogy is investing in Goldcorp, Barrick Gold or Imperial Oil (given that I might have money to invest). By divesting – withdrawing my money – I probably don’t hurt that company very much, but should I invest in them at all? Let’s say it’s Shell, that does fund renewable energy – so they do some good, although clearly they are greenwashing themselves. I could fool myself into thinking that by investing in Shell I have done some good, when all I’ve done is contribute in some small way to the tar sands, which is tantamount to murder. Hannah Arrendt’s book on Eichmann goes into this issue a bit: Eichmann believed that he was not personally morally responsible for his part in the Holocaust, that he was a mere functionary following orders. He exemplified this attitude of non-responsibility. We see that today. There is no one who is not exempt from some degree of responsibility for climate change. Clearly we need to change the structures of society that contribute to this – thus political directions like eco-socialism – but we also need to modify our personal behavior. AND / AND … not EITHER / OR.

  • While I agree with the gist of Jensen’s article (and have posted it myself on Facebook), I have to disagree that what he’s saying is applicable to flying. Flying and eating meat are the two single biggest contributions to climate change that the average semi-affluent individual engages in – both can be worse than driving a Hummer in terms of green gas emissions. The reader above is absolutely correct when he or she says that videoconferencing could and should be used. To put it into perspective , meat and animal products from factory farms – very much a matter of personal choice – accounts for an astounding 18% of GHGs globally. Flying is the fastest growing source of GHGs globally. If environmentalists and climate change activists won’t set the example on this front, how can we reasonably expect the use of flights to be curbed? Going to some conference to exchange ideas on climate change may or may not result in changing society for the better, but it is certain that flying there will change it for the worse. Flying, eating meat, and driving SUVs and living in large homes — all constitute the worst excesses that an individual can contribute, and the type of self-serving thinking that excuses these things (“if I don’t do it someone else will”) is precisely the type abdication of personal moral responsibility that allows CEOs of fossil fuel corporations to continue with their practices. Of course political and social change must occur and the actions of one individual don’t matter in that context, but the actions of many individuals do matter, and the only individual over which you have absolute control is yourself. People are mimetic creatures – the imitate one another. If we, as environmentalists, lead the way, others will follow. For more details arguments against flying see
    As for Jensen’s article, what he says is true, but it should not be applied to the most egregious forms of personal choice.

  • Jensen’s argument is difficult to refute. There are no easy responses.

    Another problem with the focus on the individual is that better-off people risk becoming sanctimonious toward poorer people. For example, rich urbanites could live comfortably in small homes near their workplaces and could purchase eco-friendly products. Poorer people may not have these luxuries. They may be forced to live far from their workplaces and to purchase mainstream products for daily living.

    The rich would appear more virtuous than the poor in this world. This attitude would never build solidarity between richer, eco-conscious people and the working class.