Changing the Light Bulbs on the Titanic: Rethinking Environmental Lifestyle Politics for the Trump Era

By: Patrick Robbins

I’m a born and raised New Yorker who has spent the vast majority of my life in cities. So I was grateful to get to spend the last three months outside of cell range, in places where the days’ beginnings and ends are marked by milking goats, or by the fireflies that rise across the land at dusk like a silent, glittering tide. I was visiting several off-grid rural communities across the U.S. South, catching up with friends and reflecting on where to go next in my organizing work.

After a few intriguing one-on-one conversations, a group of us decided to set aside some time to talk more formally about strategizing for social power, bringing snacks and coffee out onto a wide knoll and setting up under a broad willow tree. It was an enjoyable and productive discussion. But I was struck by my friends’ impatience with the fight for large-scale change—the difficult work of building institutions and strategies over time. Rather than engaging in politics, some of them—not all, by any means, but some—preferred to focus on crafting a lifestyle that uses resources in a more mindful way.

Photo: Patrick Robbins

It’s an understandable impulse: we are already living in times of crisis, facing ravaging inequality and climate chaos, with President Trump now at the helm of what is arguably the most corporate, fossil-fuel friendly administration in modern memory.

How do we recognize the urgency of this moment without throwing long-term political organizing under the bus? What do we do with the widespread urge to “tend our garden” and devote attention to our own individual practices, which (the thinking goes) we at least have some control over?

Fake Tears, Bourgeois Cavemen

The tension between lifestyle choices and projects for collective power has been a part of American environmentalism for decades. One of the best examples is the Keep America Beautiful campaign’s infamous 1971 “Iron Eyes Cody” ad, featuring a man portrayed as a Native American weeping as a car hurls trash onto the landscape. The commercial was intended to promote anti-littering action across the country. Importantly, it was funded, produced, and promoted by an industry group that was at the time waging a fierce battle against “bottle bills,” which would have forced producers like Pepsi to reduce waste on the manufacturing side. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society correctly deduced that this was an attempt to steer responsibility in the public mind toward individual consumers—and noted that when other green groups endorsed bottle bill legislation, they tended to lose funding from Keep America Beautiful’s member businesses. What followed was decades of tension between lifestyleism, focusing on personal virtue, and the project of building political power to stop ecological destruction. Indeed, modern environmental campaigns recycle many elements of “Iron Eyes Cody,” from the portrayal of a pristine wilderness to the emphasis on the individual as the primary actor (as detailed in the insightful 2009 essay “Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning,” found HERE).

Far from being limited to Big Green, this tension has spanned the full ideological range of the environmental movement. In 1994, green anarchist John Zerzan published “Future Primitive,” a collection of essays arguing against technology as inherently alienating and destructive, promoting a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. His argument was famously repudiated by ecological thinker Murray Bookchin, who condemned this tendency as an abandonment of the possibility of a real program for transformative change. In “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm” (1995), Bookchin wrote: “Seldom in recent memory has there been a more compelling popular sentiment for a new politics, even a new social dispensation that can give to people a sense of direction that allows for security and ethical meaning. If the failure of anarchism to address this situation can be attributed to any single source, the insularity of lifestyle anarchism and its individualistic underpinnings must be singled out for aborting the entry of a potential left-libertarian movement into an ever-contracting public sphere.”

As the mainstream environmental movement birthed the mainstream climate movement, it carried the individualist vs. collectivist tension within its DNA. Al Gore’s seminal An Inconvenient Truth made huge numbers of people aware of the climate crisis. But most of the solutions proposed at the end of the film were explicitly consumerist. Watching the film, audiences experienced the dual horror of a global calamity and a transparently inadequate response. More than a decade later, there is no sign that this tension will resolve.

A Foot in the Door?

Can individual choices be effectively mobilized for collective change? Human beings are creatures of ritual, after all, and making something part of your everyday routine creates a powerful ritual with consciousness-changing potential. This is the “foot in the door” theory, backed by an impressive body of research showing that a small request can prime people to be more receptive to larger requests. If, for example, someone is willing to change their light bulbs for the sake of the climate, then they may become more willing to attend a local meeting about how their state can reduce emissions.

The counterarguments go like this:

One: Even if lifestyle solutions can change consciousness, the climate movement doesn’t actually need changed consciousness at this stage in the game. As of November 2016, seventy percent of all Americans understand that global warming is happening, and over half of all Americans know that human beings are the primary cause. As of March 2016, sixty percent think Congress should be doing more to address the crisis. This is far more public support than the American Civil Rights movement had leading up to its landmark policy accomplishments in the 1960s (opinion polls from this time are fascinating and can be found HERE). We actually have the popular will that we need—our real deficiencies are resources, strategies, and institutional pathways to grow the movement.

Two: There is no guarantee that people will climb “up the ladder” or deepen their commitment past individual action, even if they are primed to do so. Consider the example of someone who recycles, but never hears about a rally in their city against Duke Energy—or who is convinced to insulate their home to save money, but doesn’t make the connection to climate action. In these scenarios, the “larger ask” never presents itself and the goodwill and sense of commitment generated by the original, smaller action is wasted.

Three: Focusing on lifestyle “choices” can alienate many of the people you want to reach. Framing a consumer action as “doing your part” runs the risk of defining environmental action in terms that are only financially accessible to the middle-to-upper classes. And promoting more economically accessible but ideologically radical personal choices—a freegan lifestyle, for instance, chosen out of a desire to minimize waste—can be off-putting even to people who share your values. In either case, if your lifestyle choices become a means for you to feel superior to others—if they become a pedestal and not a bridge—then you are implicitly throwing prospects for collective organizing under the bus. (For more on this idea, I can’t do better than the brilliant Jonathan Matthew Smucker.)

From Lifestyle Choice to Social Justice

Here’s the thing, though: we need to distinguish between “lifestyle choices” and strategies for the survival of oppressed people. Many of the communities I visited over the last three months were dedicated explicitly to the goal of making life materially easier—or in some cases possible—for queer and trans folk, most of whom are poor. While you could call these and similar efforts (like creating sanctuaries for undocumented folks) “lifestyle choices,” you’d be assuming a level of autonomy, or the possibility of surviving under capitalism, that for many people is simply no choice at all.

In one community, a repurposed bus creates an inviting home. Photo: Patrick Robbins

In these projects for survival, I believe we can find a synthesis of individual and collective action. By living together in community, you become accustomed to the idea of meeting your needs through coordinating with other people, and develop relationships of trust that can be channeled into more explicitly political projects (unlike consumer choices like changing light bulbs, which do not create any foundation for collective action). Furthermore, we need to create support infrastructure for people struggling to make a viable life in this system—the people who are impacted first and worst by the climate crisis, and who are already leading the work of building alternatives. Under President Trump, migrant communities are being targeted by U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE), poor communities are struggling with cuts to benefits and healthcare, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that this administration intends to roll back efforts to address widespread police brutality toward communities of color. If there were ever a moment demanding broader support for survival-oriented projects, i