The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 26, 2009

Reusable Bags and Stainless Steel Bottles – Do our personal changes matter at all?

I’m depressed. Down in the dumps. Anxious and overwhelmed. For over two years I’ve focused on personal change: eliminating disposable plastic from my life, reducing my energy consumption, and living as simply as possible. But when I step out my front door, the evidence of overconsumption and waste smacks me squarely in the head: piles of trash, pallets of cheap plastic crap, plastic bags and bottles and packaging. Turning on the TV, I am bombarded by messages to Buy. More. Stuff!

Are any of my individual actions making any difference in the bigger picture at all?

Last month, about twenty different people forwarded me an article by Derrick Jensen in Orion Magazine, “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change.” I resisted reading it because I feared it would cause me to question the personal actions I’ve been engaged in and promoting on this blog. But in the last few weeks, I’ve come to the point of questioning the efficacy of personal change on my own. So I figured, how could it hurt? Living in denial of the bigger picture certainly doesn’t help.

Despite the logical fallacies and blatant hyperbole that characterize his first paragraph,

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…

Jensen goes on to make some important points:

1) Taking shorter showers will not solve the global water crisis when individuals only use about 10% of available water and the rest is consumed by agriculture and industry.

2) Reducing our personal energy consumption is not enough when the vast majority is used for commercial, industrial, corporate, agribusiness and government interests.

3) Cutting our own personal waste is not enough when municipal waste accounts for only 3% of the total waste production in the United States.

4) Shifting our personal spending within our current destructive industrial economy will not be enough to reverse the environmental damage wrought by that very economy.

Jensen goes on to explain,

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.

He’s right that all of our personal changes will not reverse the destruction of our environment without massive political and social change as well. But (and this is a BIG BUT) where does he think the will for political change comes from in the first place?

Last November, I criticized a statement made by Obama that “we can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” I responded:

Changing lightbulbs can help to change people’s minds. Changing lightbulbs is a gateway action that can lead to other kinds of changes: changing the way a person votes, for example. Individual actions help to create awareness, and it’s awareness that creates the climate for political change. Because WE are the government. And the government doesn’t change unless we do.

Each act of change we make as individuals creates a greater personal investment in the outcomes of those actions. We first make changes for ourselves. We feel like we are doing our part. We learn that all of us are responsible for creating a healthy world. And then we come to understand, as I have, that while those actions are important for us as humans, they are not enough to ensure our survival as a species. If we care about that (and there are some who actually don’t) we have to do more. But how can we go further if we haven’t taken those first personal steps?

In a reaction to a comment on her blog, Green LA Girl Siel writes,

I do think that essay makes some good points, but one thing I wish it focused on more is that often, it’s the personal changes that actually lead people to get involved politically. I began with taking shorter showers, then got curious about the bigger issues about water in California, then wrote a post about it and have been getting more involved with the issue….

Personal change and political change are hardly mutually exclusive — The two really work in conjunction with each other. I think it’s the very people who start off taking shorter showers who push for laws like the water conservation mandates that went into effect in L.A., that helped convince the judge who made the ruling that farmers need to conserve water because salmon need water too.

Other bloggers have been tackling this issue as well.

Kendra Langdon Juskus from Flourish criticizes Jensen’s article from a religious perspective, and questions his assumptions about human beings’ potential for both acts of creation as well as destruction. And she too makes the connection between our personal actions and the greater good they can lead to:

I do not read my Bible simply in order to feel at peace or pleased about my day. I read my Bible so that my small, personal disciplines may inform how I interact with others, and how I participate in God’s plan for his world. A similar trajectory may be the culmination of personal disciplines like taking shorter showers in a more effective act like restoring a watershed with other conservationists. But to say that small steps are meaningless is to dissuade people not only from those small, individual disciplines, but also from the greater fruits they may bear.

Megan Dietz of The Sunny Way finds fault with Jensen’s premise that nothing less than dismantling our current model of civilization is needed to solve our environmental problems:

Jensen is taking a vast leap. Our problems are not industry and capitalism; our problems are carbon emissions, wasted resources, and inequality. Rather than ripping down the whole system—which has brought unprecedented wealth, health, and education to millions of people—why not put our energies into recreating that system so that waste, emissions, and inequality are no longer a part of it? Isn’t there a chance that our ingenuity and creativity and capacity for growth can save us from the problems created by less developed versions of our ingenuity and creativity and capacity for growth?


Taking a shorter shower might not appreciably change the world, but developing ourselves—our creativity and our sense of care for the whole of creation, oceans and industries and everything in between—certainly does. For it is only in embracing ever-broader points of view that we can see clearly enough to create new ways of living and thinking.

Elise Ertel from the journal Elephant argues that shifting consumer spending actually does make a bigger difference than Jensen imagines:

If we are really intent on making a statement and sparking change, we need to disrupt the economic flow. The little things (your decision to buy recycled toilet-paper or start riding your bike to work) send the loudest message. Every small decision you make effect the bottom line of corporations. If they see that consumers are no longer willing to impact the environment by driving high-emissions vehicles, they will change. Believe me when I say that the Prius was not created because Toyota has a soft spot for the environment. Businesses react to the demands of consumers.

This might be good news for Candace Uhlmeyer of Owl’s Farm who laments one of the major obstacles to political involvement: personal exhaustion.

I spend much of my time thinking about how I can lower my own impact on the environment, but my participation in anything political is limited to buying my electricity from Green Mountain or using Credo wireless service for my husband’s cell phone….

Now that I’m into my seventh decade on this planet, and beholden to economically and environmentally expensive technologies for my very existence (not to mention my never-ending dependence on the pharmaceutical industry to keep my arteries unclogged and my blood flowing properly), I am deeply troubled by the fact that I like my life inside the old wire fence of our little compound; I like my job, even though I’ve sold out to America’s odd notion of corporate-based, for-profit education. But the idea of spending my limited free time in further activism (beyond my considerable involvement when I was younger) is nearly unthinkable. I’m just tired.

I’m tired too. But unlike Uhlmeyer, I’m only into my 5th decade, not 7th, and I’d like to think I still have energy to get out there and stir things up (with the help of some fair trade organic caffeine.)

Fortunately, college student Jinnie from Real Gators Are Green has the youth, energy, and spirit to focus on both personal and political actions. She enthuses:

Is it still important to reduce, reuse and recycle? Of course. Little things do help a little bit. That plastic bag you recycle instead of throwing into the trash could be the plastic bag that would have otherwise killed a fish or a whale. Maybe it’s just for my own peace of mind, but I still like to think that one person can make a difference. But in order for one person to make a difference, we have to gain support for a cause, and we have to be active. So, stop reading (yes, I’m telling you to stop reading my blog…) and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Maybe being overwhelmed and depressed by the seeming ineffectiveness of our personal actions is not a bad thing IF if causes us to rethink our strategies and emboldens us to take bigger steps.

Of course, writing a blog is one way to increase the impact of our personal choices by inspiring others to make similar changes and take action.

Or maybe the small steps we each make to shift our spending to “greener” companies within the corporate industrial structure is enough.

What do you think? Please take a moment to read Jensen’s article. Are you willing to take bigger actions? Why or why not?

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Louis Vuitton

The people who read this blog and Beth as well are at or on the road to enlightenment. I don’t however, see this spreading to the extent necessary to save humanity from itself. In the race between desire and enlightenment the contest has been unequal and, as you mentioned, desire is promoted by the economic system that promotes and sustains it. Capitalism has institutionalized desire in the shape of business, further casting the path of enlightenment in deep shade.


Lara, no need to apologize for your English – es mas, mas mejor que mi espanol! (and I can't stick the special Spanish characters on here, either) In response, I'd argue that for us the new flat screen TV or iPod or Blackberry is the exact equivalent of the mirror for the Indians. It is new technology in both cases and equally magical. We have as little idea of how our gadgets work as the Indians did of the mirror. As far as material desire being intrinsic, all life on earth seeks to grasp and expand until it meets opposition… Read more »


The first step I took was learning about BPA and taking the steps to eliminate BPA from my daughter in the form of baby bottles to purchasing the Safe Sippy through a friend where they were selling them ONLY on E-Bay at the time. I then found your site, I had heard about the Take Back the Filter campaign and began collecting them and saving them without even knowing you or your blog. In fact, I still have them and haven't mailed them in yet, because they serve as a reminder of consumption but also of where I began. The… Read more »


i accidently found your site one day and have learned alot that i did not know and i have changed from not buying and using plastics to trash pickup for the first ime in my life i have not had any trash to take to the curb what little plastic i had bought before my no plastic days i recycle i compost everything biodegradable and burn all other paperlike products that i get once a week have a firepit and lite up i have saved alot of money and lost weight thanks to you…. have a mobile home on a… Read more »


Hello, If you look at the whole picture in the terms that we are industry and agriculture – then individual contribution accounts for much more. If you choose to live simply, you are effectively causing less widgets to be manufactured and less "industry" to be using up resources and power to produce that for you. So, if you look at your own personal trash can for throwing away a broken toaster… it might only be part of the 3% total household contribution. However, by widespread promotion of the idea to fix your own toaster instead of just throwing it away… Read more »


I see a striking omission in the assertion that personal commitment to earth-in-mind living doesn't make a difference. Behind faceless business and government institutions who bare a more significant role in pollution and waste are real live people, individuals, and all their values, beliefs, and traditions which ultimately permeate into the principles and practices of those institutions. Individual efforts, such as those made by the Fake Plastic Fish blog, are vitally important to affecting government and business — don't give up!

John Costigane

Hi Beth, Hi Beth, Of course personal changes matter. All our actions and connections with others builds momentum. I always suspect naysayers whatever their ideas as they are simply sowing confusion, when clear-headed determination is necessary. The 3% municipal waste is a start, as here in the UK. Sort this first and then take on the next target.Consumers have power to change the situation. An example is your Whole Foods use in the US. Recently I have found a retailer who plans a similar setup here. That is a result. I have bought desiccated coconut for the first time in… Read more »


I don't know if individual change will change the world but if individuals don't change their ways then certainly the status quo will prevail. I think it needs to start at the individual level. That individual will change those around them and those individuals will change those around them and so on and so forth. As more and more individuals see the need for change, they will be making different consumer decisions which ultimately impact big business because their individual decisions when made together are a collective decision which now has clout. And you already have impacted big business as… Read more »


Wow! Can I just say how highly I regard you, Beth, and how wonderful the comments have been for this article? I am encouraged by your blog, and by leading by your example, I am having an impact on my coworkers, friends, and family. I have seen a huge shift in the people around me just by them seeing me reducing, recycling, and reusing. For example, coworkers come to me and say, "I don't want to just throw this away. Is there a way to recycle it?" My office is now using reusable plates and silverware for office parties. My… Read more »

Lara S.

Clif, I feel the need to answer your comment.You say "it is a fight against the very core of what each of us is". I don't agree at all with the notion that humans crave for material goods because "it is intrinsic to being human". Since you're a FPF reader I suppose you've watched "The Story of Stuff", haven't you? The author has researched the origins of consumerism and says that it was a planned thing, designed to get the money flowing again after WWII. I believe her. I refuse to think that people just naturally need to consume more… Read more »


(part 2 of 2) The joy of getting things is undeniable and intrinsic to being human. Nothing did more to undermine the Native-American culture than to present the Indians with things to buy. Look at how heavily into debt Americans have gone, saving nothing and risking the future with a credit binge that looked unstoppable – such is the power of material desire. Individual action does make a difference, but humans being what we are, we will not be deterred from consumption, nor will we allow a sub-group, no matter how well intentioned or backed by reason, to restrain us… Read more »


I learned something today – comments are limited to 4096 characters. Of course this might be a hint, but I am going to ignore it…so here goes part 1 of 2 Jensen would disagree with Gandhi's advice to be the change you wish to see in the world. But the problem is not industry, agribusiness or entrenched money power and any attempt to somehow overthrow them is futile. They are merely the instruments of our consumption, doing our bidding. The problem is consumption itself. Who are we endlessly told is responsible for 70% of GDP? Who does Jensen think drives… Read more »

Green Bean

I absolutely believe that personal change leads to societal change leads to political change. One quote I've seen in the blogosphere and on Twitter sums it up for me: CFLs were my gateway drug.

Woman with a Hatchet

Well, here's the thing: while you, personally, cannot fix the environmental crisis we're currently in, you can either ADD to it or do your part to NOT add to it. You are a ripple in a pond. Your writings touched me and made me think about the plastic in my life. Because I've started paying a lot more attention to that, I've started baking all my own bread and making my own yogurt (and now I'm venturing into cheese, sour cream and buttermilk. Woo!). That may not seem like much, but all of that plastic adds up. You *know* it… Read more »

Lara S.

Wow, what a great post Beth! One of my favorites :) I just read Jensen's article and I liked it. I think he has a point. I think you're right, too though. I think his point of view and yours are both right and that a balanced mix of them is what we need to start doing something that will really change things. Personal changes help you learn things (for example, make you realize that some products contain toxics) and pass that knowledge to others.It also creates some pressure on companies to create different products.But it's true that it's not… Read more »

Mary Kay

I just read an article this week about trends in the construction industry to be more green. Who would have thought that this would ever happen??? The construction industry is very conservative. Of course, it's a cautious step, but it's in the right direction. They are starting to build hybrid construction equipment. This NEVER would have happened if it wasn't for the "green" movement occurring in the general population.


I cant believe we are still going through this discusion! Feminism taught us that the 'personal IS political'. How does normative change occour at the population level if people dont think and change the way they personally do things? Of course BIG government action to moderate the behaviour of big polluters and to engender community wide structural change is the most effecive way to go. But, if 'consumers' dont change their behaviours, in a capitalist economy no change will occour. These arguments he is proposing confuse two issues; micro and macro action, both of which are important.


Brita filters……you started and others joined, a corporation changed. While the stats on personal water use and waste seems to indicate that we don't stand a chance, I think we do. If individuals except corporations to reduce their waste then we can cut down on corp. waste also. I can think of many people who have picked up some of my habits for reducing waste and I picked up many from blogs like yours and my friends. I love that my 10 year old goes to people houses and asks where the compost bucket is. That said, I have lots… Read more »


Excellent and thought provoking post. I have been searching for a link to a program I heard on public radio this morning to give you, but I am not having much luck. It was the program Living on Earth and the speaker was Annie Leonard from The Story of Stuff. The only thing in the archive at Living on Earth is from Aug 21, so maybe today's show will show up later. Leonard was saying that individual actions don't matter. However, I think individual actions lead to actions in the voting booth, actions in the market place, and actions of… Read more »


"He's right that all of our personal changes will not reverse the destruction of our environment without massive political and social change as well. But (and this is a BIG BUT) where does he think the will for political change comes from in the first place?"

I think you've already answered your own question, Beth!


Yes, there's only so much I can do as an individual. But what I have the most control over is my own actions. And bottom line, I'd rather be part of the solution than part of the problem. I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't at least try to leave this world a better place.


After reading monkeyjen’s comment I thought I’d actually check out the Orion Mag website (I’d already read the article). And here is what I found: It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.


Personal change may not equal social change, but that’s where it starts, right? He can say all he wants about “I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply” – because basically he is giving his readers a free pass to be irresponsible. I think a letter to Orion Magazine is in order, Beth, with a link to your site…and all your cohorts, showing just what a difference individual changes can make – and how inspiring that can be towards social change. In conclusion, Derrick Jensen makes the baby jesus cry. ps, walgreens has gotten some great new – AFFORDABLE – steel… Read more »

Pure Mothers

I've been thinking about this recently. Especially because of our upcoming move to London. They didn't seem especially green there (no recycling bins, no reusable water bottles), and I thought that my personal changes there won't affect their politics. But I need to do it for myself – and to set an example for my child. One day we will be back to the states and I will have the drive to participate politically to make the real changes that need to happen. But it ALWAYS starts at home, with small steps. I agree that as individuals we do not… Read more »


I don't expect the small things I do to change the way a society works, however, I do think there is something to be said for our collective mentality and collective actions. If our collective mindset finds waste and environmental degradation foolhardy, our collective actions must follow. I know 15 years ago, bringing your own bag to the grocery store was unheard of. Now, I'd say I see about 20% of the shoppers in my neighborhood doing this. Many of the small habits I've changed, bringing my own bags, cloth diapering, using a Diva Cup, bringing my own napkin and… Read more »


Reading this article reminds me of a republican justifying his wasteful existence. Of dumpster diving helped stop hitler- Folks dumpster dived, put up victory gardens in WWII to help suply our troups. But I think that all the changes I have made have or will make a difference-1- It creates an economic difference- that usually goes to shape what will happen. If a company makes a plastic widget, that sells well, then all of a sudden everyone finds something different made out of cloth, then that company will probably stop making the plastic widget, make one out of cloth and… Read more »


My actions (avoiding plastic, living car-free, avoiding meat, eating ethically, conserving water and more) are not to change policy. I don't have a hope in hell of any policy being effected because of my personal actions. I do it because it is the right thing to do. As a human being, I have a conscience and I listen to it. Sure everyone on the planet can decide that they'd like to toss shit in the pacific or in their water supply because taking individual action to avoid it is oh so inconvenient. That is their choice on whether they can… Read more »


if I had not started reading your blog- I wouldn't be a well informed as I am about the horrors of plastic on our environment. I've made several small changes in the way I live my life and how I will effect this planet- and I believe that all small changes mean something to someone- so don't let 'em get you down with criticism of the small things- your work here changes lives and truly does effect the world we live in

Farmer's Daughter

I've realized that I have to be politically educated and active if I want to see societal changes. But I came to that realization after years of personal changes.