By Alex Eisenberg, February 6, 2021

During my last quarter of college I learned about the concept of The Personal Responsibility Vortex. This concept (along with the critical thinking and systems thinking skills I honed at Evergreen) revolutionized how I thought about what effective activism looks like.

The Personal Responsibility Vortex (PRV), as I understand it (though, Lights Out folks, please fill in the blanks), is the idea that we can drive ourselves so crazy obsessing about making responsible/ethical consumer choices (because we genuinely do care so much about the earth and want to “do our part”) that we actually disempower ourselves in making effective changes on the scale they need to be made. In effect, we as individuals and sometimes communities are taking on the burden of responsibility of the industrial destruction of the planet, instead of holding accountable the entities and systems that are actually (and quite strategically) driving that destruction, thereby rendering us less effective and even disempowered in the work.

This burden of responsibility feels like too much: it’s exhausting. And disempowering. And overwhelming. And feels hopeless. And we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. There are no “Good” options.

And that exhaustion and resignation, leaves us so disempowered that it seem like we have only one choice (which is really no choice at all): the lesser of two evils.

The reason I changed the framing of my question the other day from “how do you feel about this destruction happening so you can drive an electric car” to, essentially, “how do you feel about this destruction happening so corporations can continue exploiting the earth for the sake of capitalism” is for this same reason. The scale of environmental and social problems we face are not, ultimately, going to be altered by individual consumer choices, or the guilt we feel…ESPECIALLY when that burden and guilt is so exhausting, debilitating, disempowering, ESPECIALLY when making truly ethical decisions is essentially impossible (the show The Good Place nailed it with this point), and ESPECIALLY when we have been made to believe that we have to (that we only get to) “choose” the lesser-of-two-evils.

But it is, indeed, easier to believe that we can make these personal and other symbolic changes than it is to confront the reality, which is that the environmental catastrophe is not driven by how long of showers I take, or whether I drive this car or that one, of whether or not I buy avocados, or who is in office. It is specifically driven by the thrusts and whims of capitalistic, colonialized, corporate, white supremacist, elite, monocultural, car-addicted industrialized super-structures and those people who are directly benefiting (profiting) from, and therefore, invested in maintaining them. And it is these forces that need to be confronted and resisted.

Even after learning about The Personal Responsibility Vortex, I still agonize over consumer choices. But when it comes down to it, I know that for every minute of shower I don’t take, millions upon millions of gallons of fresh water are being turned into waste water by corporations; for every piece if plastic I don’t buy, tonnes are being produced, much of it for cheap junk that will never even be used but will still get swallowed by seagulls. This is a crazy-making reality and we are bought into it and it is disempowering our movements among other things. In my personal experience of the Personal Responsibility Vortex, it almost killed me.

I didn’t start driving until I was 25 or 26 (several years after college). I didn’t get a smart phone until I was 28 or 29, because from the age of 13 I was so deeply committed to fighting climate change I was already so desperate to stop the destruction was beginning to perceive. I didn’t know what to do or how but I knew what I was seeing and I needed to act. I desperately didn’t want to be a “bad thing” for the planet, which is how I felt. I didn’t want to live in a world without trees, bees, wolves, whales…I couldn’t stomach it. And to be part of their demise? I would rather have died. I would rather have given up everything. So I gave up the biggest thing I could as a middle class white teenager living in the suburbs: driving a car. Then I vowed to use every electronic until it absolutely, unrecoverably died. And I started reusing, repurposing, ecohoarding, convincing my family to buy organic, whatever I could think of that seemed better for the planet, from my 13 year old vision of “sustainability”.

Giving up driving was fine, overall. I liked it, actually. But I exhausted myself, and probably my family and friends, with my personal choices in relation to technology, with my obsessiveness about making the right choices. And because I didn’t drive while living in the car-crucial suburbs, I was cut off from other people who cared about the earth the way I did; cut off from the ways I could have more effectively partnered with them to organize against climate change. I found myself isolated and depressed and even suicidal. I was even bullied for my passion: by my brother, by my classmates, by adults who told me I was overreacting, being gaslit and talked down to and told to relax. In the Homeowner’s Association email group, I was antagonistically dubbed “the activist living on our street.” In so many ways that mattered, I was alone in the struggle, and made to feel crazy. And often, i just wanted to die.

I was firmly stuck in the grasp of the personal responsibility vortex, and it was sucking me dry.

In some sense in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade the choices I made. But that isn’t because I think I made a huge difference in carbon emissions by not driving, by not having a smart phone, by protesting family vacations flying to Mexico by staying behind. I wouldn’t change them because of how the consequences of those choices enriched my life: how this lifestyle allowed me to connect with people on buses, hitchhiking, asking for rides; forced me to sit with myself and journal instead of being on my phone; invited me to pay attention to landmarks and navigate and get lost and get found; implored me to slow down, open my eyes, be available to poetry, be human. My choices weren’t saving the world, but they were good choices for me at that time.

When I finally did get my truck after college, and then later a smartphone (the same one I am writing this on), it was because I needed to start supporting myself in a different way and that required a car. It did feel like a compromise of personal values for the sake of reclaiming some sanity (and yeah my lifestyle has, in some ways suffered for it), but honestly I am privileged to have had any choice in the first place. Many people (most people) don’t have the luxury of choosing the “lesser evil” or thinking about this at all. In this way, the PRV is an issue of class privilege, and the shaming that comes with it is blind to the reality of most people’s lives.

To me, the point of understanding the PRV, for me, is not to not try to make ethical consumer choices. But to do so only (or especially) insofar as it: energizes us and enlivens us; makes us healthier and happier; connects us more deeply to each other, our local community, the land we live on and share, and the things we use and are in relationship with; empowers us and our movements. When these decisions are draining us (energetically or financially) or disempowering us to the extent that we feel too exhausted and resigned and guilty for the real work, we are falling prey to the personal responsibility vortex.

We the people, especially those of us who have limited resources at our disposal, must not further disempower (materially, energetically, relationally) ourselves and our movements by becoming a slave to the PRV due to our sense of integrity/conscience, while the governments and corporations, who literally have all the resources in the world, are running rampant with no guilt or conscience.

So, yes, I drive and use a phone, even as I genuinely want to dismantle the oil industry AND the lithium battery/electric car industry. Yes I am sitting at Thacker Pass typing this on my phone, having spent 12 hours yesterday burning fuel to get here, to try to help build the movement to stop the mine that will make more phones and cars possible.

It is not my (or your) responsibility to be pure in a world which makes that an impossibility. It is, however, my responsibility to name a reality when I become aware if it. (This pit mine is an aberration. An absurdity. A violation. A rape. And is not okay.) It is not my responsibility to know the full resolution of or alternative to that issue (to this issue) before speaking to it, though you can be damn sure I’ve spend the better portion trying to figure it out. And this is what I’ve come to.

So instead of policing each other (I’m just as guilty as anyone) and perpetuating the PRV, I believe we should confront the actual destruction at the source, while building a large scale movement of true resistance and true resilience, toward the collective liberation of humans, if possible, but if nothing else, than the planet and all its remaining inhabitants.