But of course, that's the wrong question - it isn't that war or other crisis makes what we do in our kitchens matter as much as what we do in the voting booth, a the protest or in public service - it is that in the heightened awareness of crisis we recognize something that is always true - that the line between "individual" and "public" is very, very fine. It is true there are things done in the dark of night in our own rooms that have no political context whatsoever (at least according to most folks on the left
"Individual" acts are generally quite collective in any given society - and especially so in a media-driven consumer culture. What may look to our habits like private choice is driven by a whole host of public resources, energies and moneys, often with strong political interests - the shape of our economy is a political concern. Thus, for example, our "individual" food choices over the last fifty years have been shaped by "private" corporations operating in public through media, subsidized by public policy. The fact that 'Coke or Pepsi" is a choice, that it is deemed a meaningful one, and that "clean water" isn't one is all in play when we go make our "individual" choice between sodas that taste like highly sugared battery acid.
Any discussions of "individual vs. political" choices ultimately must include gender. Think about how many of the "individual" choices so often demeaned by some environmentalists (among them Monbiot, Schellenberger, Romm, etc...) who say they can't make a difference were traditionally "women's work" - from things that are tied to shopping or not shopping(and since women make or influence 90% of all purchases, including traditionally male-associated things like tools and cars, this remains fairly accurate), cooking rather than buying fast food, domestic life (turning off lights and down heat, gardening), frugality and "making do" etc... It isn't that men don't do these things - they absolutely do - but they are associated culturally with women. And the public realm, and political action, is both dominated by men and associated with them, going back to the 19th century and before. And that absolutely shapes our diminution of their value.
Historically, the distinction between "public" and "private" is strongly gendered - women, and most of the acts above, are associated with the private. In the most extreme versions of this, women had no public existence at all separate from father or husband legally speaking in many cultures. In the 19th century, when the mythos of "the angel in the house" had its maximum currency, it was common to say that women's names should appear in the newspaper 3 times - at birth, marriage and death - that is, that women should have no public or civil existence. Of course, even in the most repressive Victorian times this rule was as much disobeyed as obeyed, but the legacy of the thought that it created lives with us.
Over the last 50 years, since the end of World War II, we have had the greatest movement in history out of the private, domestic "sphere" and into the "public" realm. And it is no accident that this move has coincided with wild growth in the US and other rich world nation's energy consumption. The workforce nearly doubled, creating use for twice as many cars, twice as many jobs. Women, no longer cooking and cleaning hired out for those jobs - expending money and energy creating new low wage work for the poor, who also stopped cooking for their kids as the cost of living rose. Now that women had their own money, the bought stuff.
Do not mistake me - I am a feminist and I do not hold women any more responsible for the environmental destruction our new wealth created than men - there were many feminist voices that advocated not the outsourcing of domestic labor to corporations and poorer, non white people, but shared labor in the home. However, I find the demeaning of women's traditional work, and by implication the women who did it then and the women and men (mostly poor and non-white) who often do it for us now, offensive and destructive.
What I am claiming is this - that the women's movement as it happened, was seized upon by the growth capitalist economy, and perverted into something ecologically destructive. In fact, this is more about feminism's lack of power to overcome the dominant culture than its alliance with it. But the history of personal energy use cannot be separated from the history of feminism, it stands as material proof of the claim that individual actions when taken within a society are enormously powerful *and* the sheer destructiveness of moving 60% of all women into the workforce (without a simultaneous reduction in male workers) was in part a function of the artificial public/private; individual/political distinction. That is, the things that we call "individual" and imagine don't much matter, are the remnants of a culture that demeans "women's work" even after most women stopped doing that work.
By this last point, I mean to say that the habit of concealing "private" acts under the notion that they are individual and thus without political context, which growth capitalism does anytime war or other crisis doesn't intercede, is part of the reason we permitted this enormous destruction. Our habits of thinking led us to demean "women's work" as low impact, low importance things that couldn't possibly matter. Maria Mies in _The Subsistence Perspective_ calls this the "housewifization" of women's labor - that is, it is systematically removed, by capitalism, to a "private" and invisible sphere, no longer measured or considered to contribute to the economy as a whole. Such labor is described as drudgery, mindless, numbing (which is just how Betty Friedan described it, for example), unskilled, lower class. This simultaneously presents women who can avoid it a powerful cultural incentive to go do important "public" work, and also essentially erases those "individual acts" from the culture. We come to assume that anything that is so demeaned, dismissed, unmeasured, undervalued, done by people held in contempt by the society as whole couldn't possibly be powerful enough, say, to influence the whole climate or to drive us to an energy peak sooner than expected.
It is not that I deny the influence of larger issues, or the need for political actions in their purest form. Nor am I claiming that women's roles are the origin or whole cause of climate change and peak oil - far from it. What I am arguing instead is that our emphasis on this distinction is not based on any inherently meaningful division, and that our habit of dividing actions into individual and political ones is more destructive than it is productive. We cling to it not because it illuminates some useful truth, but because it is habit leftover from another world, encouraged by precisely the forces that got us into this trouble to begin with.
Instead of wasting time on this artificial distinction, we need to begin recognizing the sheer political and social power of choices we've deemed "individual" and also think about how this distinction has led even many activists to misunderstand power relationships, and how to make an impact. For example, a recent survey of "Green" consumers suggest that many people focus on relatively minor impact actions (cloth bags for example), but drive and fly more than people who do not identify with environmental causes. Such a study is obviously biased by class issues, and yet, the "green consumer" movement already shows deep problems, as people are unable to distinguish between meaningful actions and relatively meaningless ones. An integrated understanding of our actions would, for example, prevent many people hopefully from, for example, publicly supporting new farm policies while sending cash donations to ConAg, Kelloggs and Altria who oppose them, in the form of supermarket groceries.
Moreover, it would spare environmentalists a sparring point, a distracting debate that sets us at each other, trying to undermine each other's proposed solutions, as well as saving us all time. Not to mention, that as more and more men and women take up the demeaned category of domestic, "housewifized" labor out of necessity and desire, it might shake some of the cultural negativity from that work. If we stop sneering at cooking and gardening as just another "individual" choice, utterly separate from our "political" work (which we have to do too), we might make a real dent in all of the parts of the equation.
It is always a lie to say that "individual" choices don't matter, but it is especially a lie to say that during a time of crisis, and we are in one now. In wartime, there are two fronts - the war front and the home front, and both are essential to success. The soldiers cannot fight without sufficient food and other resources, the families cannot continue to grow and cook food, to conserve and live without the soldier's protection (ok, let's just pretend that we're talking about some of the less moronic wars, just for rhetorical purposes ;-). In this conflict, there is no far away enemy - as Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." And there is no divided front - no need to separate husbands and wives, parents and children, loved ones from one another - in fact, we can't afford a two front war when facing the twin difficulties of climate change and peak oil - we need everybody working together on the Home Front.
Nor can we afford to stick to outdated debates about whether "individual" or "political" action are required. Virtually all acts are political, in the sense of collective. Yes, if you hide the fact that you are hanging your laundry in your basement, there is no political context. But if you hang your laundry out in front of your house (or talk about your basement drying rack), you are saying to your neighbors, and those who pass by "this is not ugly or shameful, this is important." The next step is talking to the neighbors, a political act - that, by the way is the next step in politics too - talking. The step after that is the zoning commission and then perhaps a seat on the zoning board. But there is no point at which this is a purely individual act. Nor is there a purely political one - we all know by now that how you get to the protest sends a message as surely as your being there.
What we need is not separate spheres, but INTEGRITY - that is, the *integration* of the multiple parts of our lives. It is, of course, more difficult than advertising that one kind of work is meaningful and the rest isn't, but it is also more effective, more moral, and more likely to lead to success on the new Home Front.