Ever since Al Gore first launched his climate crusade, the sight of any given public figure making the case for action, anywhere other than in their own home, has frequently been met with the following genre of response: if you care so much, how come you took a plane? If you didn’t take a plane, how much did the alternative cost? How much steel does a train use these days, anyway? Wouldn’t it be cheaper, ergo greener, not to go anywhere?
Recently the cacophony has become deafening. Take, for example, the case of Prince Harry and Meghan’s use of private jets, and what it says about their environmental credentials. Once we might have understood that the rich would say and do things in their own rich fashion, and it was worth it for those things to be done; now it seems wealth is used to discredit ethical arguments by the wealthy. Groups are disbarred from collective ambition because their privilege sets them outside the collective.
If we carry on like this, there will be no one left to do anything worth doing; even having the time for activism puts you in the zone of privilege because the “truly oppressed” don’t have that luxury. And so the principle is established: the ultimate political statement is the personal life, and personal acts can fatally undermine political claims.
We’ve been here before. The personal became the political in a 1970 essay by the US second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch. Her point was quite specific: she was responding to the argument that when women talked from personal experience – of abortion, domestic violence, unmeetable beauty standards, household drudgery, the whole suite of female oppression – it was “therapeutic” rather than political. There was a view, at that time, on the left and also in areas of feminism, that women’s consciousness-raising was fringe stuff, politically speaking. It wasn’t worthless but, belonging in the realm of personal experience, it was up to individuals to resolve at that level. There was another, less judgmental, view that these problems were all rooted in women’s social conditioning. At least that located oppression where it belonged, in society, but it still situated the solutions within the individual who ought, once her consciousness had been raised, to be able to slough off the conditioning that was oppressing her.
Hanisch’s counter-argument was basically a Marxist materialist one: if you want to understand how and why people are oppressed, you have to ask who benefits from their oppression. If you think it’s trivial who did the washing up and had their professional prospects dimmed as a result, you have to ask who didn’t do it. If you think women’s reproductive rights are a personal matter, you have to ask who gains societally from the power imbalance created from their restriction.
This analysis was exquisitely uncomfortable, because it left no respite: you couldn’t logically be domestically subjugated while publicly fighting for the emancipation of all. In the 1970s, in that spirit, it was virtually de rigueur for feminists to pursue strategic squalor (a memory: my first stepmother’s friends used to serve us squash out of used yoghurt pots, which themselves hadn’t been washed, in protest against needless washing up. It was truly a terrible time to be the child of a feminist if you liked squash).
The idea that “the personal is political” has always made demands that were exceptionally hard to live by. Yet what it emphatically never meant is what it has become: an injunction that until you are living perfectly, according to the values you espouse, you are a hypocrite and an irrelevance. There’s a logical impossibility at the heart of this new norm: to change society, you have to exist in it; yet to do so involves compromising with its imperfections, whereupon you supposedly become just a cog in its workings.
This erects an impossible barrier to entry: if you’re not Jesus (or perhaps Peter Tatchell), you’re not bona fide. Hanisch’s point, by contrast, was inclusive above all: if everything you experience is political then it is all part of the same struggle and the same solidarity.
Reflecting in 2006 on her original essay, Hanisch wrote: “It’s necessary that theories take their knocks in the real world, like everything else,” but that this one in particular had been turned on its head, deliberately misused. Some challenges were made in good faith. When Paula Rust, another second-wave feminist, wrote: “One’s personal choices reveal or reflect one’s personal politics; one should make personal choices that are consistent with one’s personal politics; personal life and personal politics are indistinguishable,” she was pushing at the limits of the idea. But that was in the context of sexuality within the movement – specifically, the extent to which one’s sexual and political orientation could and should align (much of her work was centred on the political flashpoints between lesbian and bisexual women).
Rust’s sentiment has been shifted far away from its time and place. It’s been re-appropriated in a cynical move to taint everyone, dampen any hope of change, poison every ambition. And this has been particularly corrosive to environmentalism, where the compromises that activists necessarily make take up more discursive energy than the crisis itself. This undermining of green politics needs to be named for what it is and resisted. Feminism had no deadline, it was a struggle that could move fast or slow according to passion, agility, the alignment of the stars. Environmentalism is all deadline: if those who oppose action can procrastinate by fixating on imponderables – which of us is sufficiently without sin? – then their victory will be total.
The answer is not to strive for greater individual perfection, but to return to that first materialist analysis: who benefits from climate inaction? Whose status is maintained by political inertia? Whose structures render personal efforts insufficient? Take the fight back to politics, where it belongs.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist