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Drinking the Ocean with a Straw
When is individual sacrifice a distraction from larger reparations?
This week, I’m sharing your responses about making amends for complicity in evil. Next Thursday, I’ll put together a roundup of your comments on the limits of consent culture.
I appreciated your comments about how you make amends for participation in evil systems (a conversation sparked by my New York Times piece recommending people get vaccinated but also reckon with medicine’s remote cooperation with evil).
You talked about some kinds of cooperation you’d chosen to turn away from. Elizabeth stopped knitting with acrylic yarn, to resist the proliferation of plastics. Lauren cut back on meat for her family in order to be able to buy only meat from local providers.
But I wanted to devote the bulk of this week’s roundup to a comment from Martha, on why she sees individual renunciation as a fairly limited strategy for making things right.
I think most attempts to avoid personal material cooperation with evil, in a society fraught with inequality, injustice and the degradation of our world and our relationships, lead us to actually avoid taking the steps necessary to make amends or reparations. The goal should be to stop the evil in the first place, and to do so collectively with a shared and clearly defined outcome and benchmarks to measure progress.
It's hard work, for instance, to volunteer for a local organization committed to an outcome of drastically decreasing CO2 emissions. First, your goal may be eliminating a local coal plant that causes asthma, which you work on for years. Then you might set your organization's sights on stopping an oil pipeline, which you work on for years. Then you work together to help pass legislation to subsidize electric vehicles (all while working on other projects along the way). That's much harder work in many ways than buying an electric vehicle or attempting to monitor and pay back your individual CO2 output. But it's also less maddening, more impactful and more rewarding! Plus, it's done in community—which is its own good.
This isn't to say that we shouldn't choose good where we can. It's easy for me to eat mostly organic or avoid Driscolls berries or stop eating fish (seaspiracy documentary shoutout!). But I try to consciously spend less time & energy interrogating personal choices than working collectively for change.
One last thought: dwelling on personal material cooperation can actually separate us from the world in profound and hurtful ways. When we value purity over pursuit of justice, we can separate ourselves from communities who could be part of the change we want to see, or separate ourselves from collective work that is already happening.
I definitely see the dynamic that Martha is discussing in climate change. People’s desire to help is diverted into small, personal sacrifices like shorter showers or eschewing straws, whose impact is limited at best, and, in the case of straws, based on bogus statistics. We can feel the pinch of our choices without doing very much good.
Still, in my own giving to charities and advocacy groups, I keep a little windward of the “most effective” approach. I could set up all my donations as automatic recurring withdrawals, but I worry about becoming disconnected from the work if my giving is “set it and forget it.”
I do a mix of spontaneous giving throughout the year, and catch up/rebalancing donations in December, to make sure our family is hitting our goals for giving, and that I haven’t neglected a group that didn’t catch my attention during the year.
In some ways, I’m using those individual actions for some of the same purpose that Martha suggests working in community—it’s a way of sustaining your drive to work on a long term goal. As a Catholic, I also appreciate the chance to offer a small sacrifice or fast in prayer for a particular person or intention—I can trust that the impact will go beyond the single forgone pleasure.
But, like Martha, I’m on my guard about who is the one proposing the individual sacrifice. I don’t trust an individual carbon footprint calculator backed by BP.