I’ve noticed that activists (or just people who care about any public issue, even if they are not very active about it) fall into three categories.

  1. Individualist people. They want to make personal choices to change their personal impact on the world. Many strongly oppose taking political action at all. People who just avoid buying meat or petrol cars or nestle or products from occupied palestine etc. That is their way of making a difference.

  2. Social people. They are interested in the local/community level. They organise swap-meets, do bicycle repair workshops, they work together on allotments, they volunteer at charities.

  3. Political people. They want to make national or global changes. They go to protests, write to politicians, vote in elections.

Of course most people do a bit of all three. But everyone seems to be really focused on only one of them.

I will argue that #1 is three things:

  1. Ineffective.

  2. Counter-productive.

  3. Self-defeating.


The amount of impact you can have by tweaking your lifestyle is small. Even if many people do it, business will not. And most of the problems are caused by businesses.

You won’t impact overfishing by refraining from fishing yourself, but people think that you can impact pollution by not driving a car yourself. In most cases it’s the businesses which must change their ways, not the individuals.


What if you stop buying fish? Even if 1 billion people decide to not buy fish, that still leaves 6 billion people who are still buying fish. This is the perfect situation for fishing businesses - despite massive opposition, their sales are barely affected. 1 billion people opposing fishing with political action would kill the industry.

But people think buying more tofu and less beef is worthwhile in the fight against farming malpractice, that buying a bike or electric car will help against pollution. This style of activism is very popular among the problem industries themsleves, and actively promoted by them. It is “activism by excercising consumer choice”.

But we must be more than just savvy consumers, to really change anything.


If you make a choice - you will use less water, heat your house less, eat less tasty food, spend more money on ethically produced products - you are making a small sacrifice. Others are not. Those others are at an economic advantage against you. Even if all you are spending is mental energy, they will have slightly richer lives than you. In aggregate, this type of action is self-limiting, self-defeating.

If the people who do the right thing suffer slightly, and the people who don’t are unpunished, there is a strong disincentive to take action. This is the opposite of what is needed.

I made an earlier post about how everyone is divided - interested in different causes - so there is no critical mass to change any one thing - even though there is broad support for all of the causes. I won’t repeat that here - it’s a different problem.

So, to me this has all become obvious recently by talking to kinds of people I wouldn’t normally talk to. Individualist action is very popular. There is even a taboo against political action. People want to avoid confrontaion, and they are jaded of the news cycle.

But does have a value - as the entry-level. To start people thinking about the greater good, ease people into being concientious. #1 is the easiest, so you can get satisfaction from making a small difference. And you don’t risk big disappointments or uncomfortable confrontations, so it’s accessible to more personality types, which is important. It also feels more democratic, more civilised.

But I’m convinced now, that these individualist people (the vast majority IMO) all need to be persuaded into more effective methods.

To spend any energy, time, money on activism through personal consumer choices, it undermines the very cause you are working for. These methods are championed only by the very industries who want nothing to change.

  • @TechieDamien
    22 years ago

    I missed that part, that is a good argument against the effectiveness of individual activism. As for what I think about hypocritical activism, I think there is a fine line between it being necessary in the short term to coming across as overtly hypocritical and shallow, thus undermining the entire point they are making.