Green consumerism

For many years governments, businesses and environmental organisations have been sending us a powerful message: we can make a difference if we change how we use energy in our daily lives. The environment sections of bookstores are stuffed with cheerful volumes describing all the things we can do to cut our greenhouse gas emissions—change our light bulbs, walk to the store, boil only as much water as we need, make sure we have a full load to put in to the washing machine and dry the clothes outside. WWF lists them under What you can do to fight climate change', and under the heading 'Ten Personal Solutions to Global Warming' the Union of Concerned Scientists declares: 'Individual choices can have an impact on global climate change. Reducing your family's heat-trapping emissions does not mean forgoing modern conveniences.'23

The idea that individuals can solve global warming infects the academic literature as well as popular culture. One study designed to test the belief that lack of public concern can be explained by a lack of knowledge about global warming found the opposite: those who are more knowledgeable about global warming feel less responsible for it. The authors treat this as a contradiction that needs resolution, yet perhaps the more one understands about the causes of warming the more one recognises that changing individual behaviour can have relatively little effect and that only collective action will work.24 While some of us understandably want to reduce our own contribution to global warming, green consumerism is effective only to the extent it fosters political mobilisation.

Nevertheless, the message of green consumerism is seductive: if I am worried about climate change then I should try to do something about it, and the one thing I can control is my own behaviour. The danger of green consumerism is that it transfers responsibility from the corporations mostly accountable for the pollution, and the governments that should be restraining them, onto the shoulders of private consumers. As Michael Maniates has written: 'A privatization and individualization of responsibility for environmental problems shifts blame from state elites and powerful producer groups to more amorphous culprits like "human nature" or "all of us".'25 Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures, we are told that we each have to accept liability for our personal contribution to every problem. Websites that allow us to calculate our own 'ecological footprint' reinforce the personalising of responsibility.

In practice, green consumerism has failed to induce significant inroads into the unsustainable nature of consumption and production, and is unlikely ever to do so. For example, in those countries where green power (renewable electricity) has been made available to households and businesses, take-up rates have been low despite heavy promotion. In Australia, after a decade of promotion, by 2008 only 9 per cent of householders had picked up the phone to ask their electricity retailer to switch them over.26 And despite the fanfare, buying carbon offsets has to date had no appreciable impact on the growth of greenhouse gases, nor is it likely to. Climate change is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. In other words, it needs good, strong policies enforced by governments.

Green consumerism is advocated by some who are less well-meaning than green groups. Governments and corporations often want to show how concerned they are about the environment and divert attention from their own role. Few are as blatant as E.ON, the owner of coal-fired power plants, which tells its customers: 'It's easy to blame industry and transport for environmental crime. But who decides what to produce and what to ship to different parts of the world? Isn't it you as a consumer?'27 It's not our coal-fired power plants that bear the guilt but you, our customers, who are the environmental criminals.

The trend to individualise environmental problems has far-reaching implications for the nature of democracy too. When environmental problems become individualised the nature of public debate is no longer about the institutions that perpetuate and reinforce environmental degradation; it's about our personal behaviour. As Maniates argues, when citizens concerned about the environment are told to express their concern through their purchasing decisions, social conscience becomes a commod-ity.28 The environment becomes depoliticised so that the major parties can share a common vision without getting into a potentially damaging bidding war over who will better look after the environment. The ethical conversation is also changed: instead of understanding the systemic factors that are the cause of and solution to the environmental problem, it becomes a question of personal morality. We are encouraged or shamed into buying eco-friendly products, insulating our homes and recycling our waste. While these activities do not deserve to be criticised in themselves—engaging in them reduces our personal responsibility—when they are promoted as the solution to environmental decline they may actually block the real solutions.

While advanced as a way of harnessing the power of consumers, green consumerism can actually disempower us because it denies our agency as citizens or political actors instead of consumers. It is important to stress that the failure of consumers to take up greenpower or recycle everything does not mean that they don't care and nothing should be done. This confuses the role of the self-interested consumer with the role of the responsible citizen. Despite attempts to turn us all into rational economic calculators, consumers are not the same as citizens; supermarket behaviour is not the same as ballot box behaviour. There is a wealth of evidence to show that people think and act quite differently in the two roles.29 Thus it is not inconsistent for consumers to decline to take up green power when it is offered but to vote for a party that promises to require everyone to buy green power.

One of the striking features of the campaign to persuade us to change how we use energy is the way the various organisations stress that we do not have to give up any of our comforts.30 The slogan 'It's easy being green' is built on the assumption that if it's hard people won't go green. A television program with that name is promoted as 'an entertaining, fun and upbeat look at the growing "green" lifestyle . . . But it's not about throwing away everything you have and changing your lifestyle dramati-cally'.31 No one wants to ask us to change our lifestyles because to do so may challenge much more than our energy use; it may ask us to confront our sometimes fragile sense of self. Indeed, the consumption of 'green' consumer goods has itself become a method of self-creation through consumption practices (albeit a sometimes far less damaging one). By shifting responsibility on to individuals and reinforcing the sacrosanct nature of consumer lifestyles, green consumerism threatens to entrench the very attitudes and behaviours that have given us global warming.

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