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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Five Problems With Simple Living (p. 257)

From chapter "Powerlessness"

Unless you’re ideologically blinkered, irredeemably selfish, or just plain stupid, it’s pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive. And because the continued existence of the industrial economy cannot be questioned, much less threatened, and because we must always be disallowed from realizing that the problem is the culture, not us (just as in any abusive situation all people must always be disallowed from realizing that the problems are caused by the abuser, not the victims), many of us choose to “fight back” by decreasing our involvement in the industrial economy, by “living simply so that others may simply live.”

So we eat less. We drive less. We do not own a car. We take shorter showers. We live more and more simply. We feel more and more pure.

We’re doing what we know we can control.

Living simply is a good thing to do. Sadly, it in no way stops this culture from killing the planet. In no way is it a sufficient response to this culture’s destructiveness. In no way is it a substitute for actively and effectively resisting actions and policies that harm our (and others’) habitat.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but that’s primarily because I only buy stuff I want, and I don’t really want a lot (except I’d love to buy a lot of land to protect it, which would of course be analogous to buying individual slaves to free them, which doesn’t alter the fact that I want to do it). But I don’t pretend that me not buying much (or me not driving much, or me not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change. It’s not a significant threat to those in power, nor to the system itself.

Besides being ineffective at causing the sorts of changes necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are at least five other problems with perceiving simple living as a political act (as opposed to living simply because that’s what you want). The first is that it’s fundamentally as narcissistic and as much a product of magical thinking as Baring Witness or orgasms for peace in that it substitutes private personal actions that accomplish very little in the real world, and a whole lot of wishing (“But if everybody lived simply . . .” they say, to which we can respond, “If we’re going to fantasize about everybody doing something, let’s fantasize about them demolishing the oil infrastructure to slow carbon emissions”) for organized (or solo) resistance. Once again, I’m not dissing simple living. This book started with me shitting in the forest because it makes food for slugs. But I’m not going to trumpet that act as particularly political. Although it does help those particular slugs and the frogs who eat them, it’s not going to slow global warming or stop plastics from being dumped in the ocean. Ultimately it won’t even help these slug and frog communities, because unless the industrial economy is stopped, global warming and global poisoning will kill them.

The second is that it’s predicated on the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase, in that it consists solely of harm reduction. The world is still a worse place than had you never been born, only this time it’s not quite as bad as it would have been had you not been so pure. But humans can help the earth as well as harm it, and simple living as a political act ignores this. There are other things we can do as well. We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can shut down gold mines that are poisoning water sources, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.

The third problem is that it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who have no particular power in this system except their ability to consume) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself.

The fourth problem is that it fundamentally accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers, such that the “political acts” of the simple living “activists” are not the acts of citizens, with all the responsibilities citizenship implies, but are explicitly the acts of consumers. This redefinition is as wrenching, alienating, demeaning, disempowering, and wrong as this culture’s previous redefinition of us from human animals in functioning communities to citizens of nation-states. Each of these redefinitions gravely reduces our range of possible forms of resistance. Human animals in functioning communities perceive themselves as having a wider range of forms of resistance to threats (both internal and in the case of functioning communities primarily external) available to them than citizens of nation-states, who perceive themselves as having a wider range available to them than consumers.

The fifth 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 at least as importantly 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. Partly because it’s true. The world would be better off without humans who do not actively attempt to stop industrial civilization from killing the planet.

No, that’s not true. Whether or not we “attempt” to stop this culture is irrelevant. Results matter, in this case. The world would be better off without humans who do not actively and successfully stop industrial civilization from killing the planet.

Because the industrial economy is based on omnicide (and you thought it would never get around to consuming you?), to participate in this economy without proactively shutting it down is to be thrust into a double-bind, in fact into the double-bind to end all double-binds (in fact the double-bind to end all life). A double-bind is a situation where you are presented with two (or more) options, and no matter which option you choose, you lose, with the additional constraint that you cannot leave. 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 “alternate” 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 self-righteous, and we haven’t even had to give up all of our empathy (only enough of it to not stop the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses. And unless you’ve found a way to leave the planet—which would be an odious abrogation of responsibility anyway—you can’t leave. Except by dying.

The good news is that there are other options.