Pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks

Is it worth trying to reduce your personal impact when we need to tackle climate breakdown on a systemic level, or is it just, as George Monbiot calls it, pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks?

Edit 20th May: replaced the embedded Facebook video with a Youtube one as it didn’t seem to be visible to some people. 

In many ways I think he’s right: while I’m delighted that in recent years issues like climate change and the wastefulness of a lifestyle built on the manufacture and discarding of single use products have gained so much attention, many of the proposed solutions – buy a reusable mug, stop using straws – seem both hopelessly small scale in the face of planetary catastrophe, and are based on encouraging individuals to make different choices rather than demanding structural change. We live in a society where some people (the poor and marginalised) have far fewer choices available to them than others do, and this view not only fails to challenge that but positions environmentalism as something only available to the rich.

Many environmental campaigns unconsciously demote participant from citizen to just a consumer. We should aspire to be much more than savvy consumers. It’s an accidental buyin to the concept that free market solutions are the only solutions, even though free markets are illusory myths, while what we really need to do is carefully change rules of market to benefit society. Instead, let’s think about why we’ve built a world where a) the less damaging choices are harder to make than the more damaging ones and b) why some people have more ability to make those choices than others.

We can’t consume our way out of this mess. We especially can’t consume our way out in a society where the majority of people are denied the resources for basic survival, because by definition they don’t have resources to put toward these choices. And by positioning the issue at the level of individual choice, at the level of personal virtue, we’ve accepted the rightwing idea that structural factors are irrelevant, that it’s a failure of individual responsibility, and dressed it as progressivism.

In light of this is it worth making environmentally conscious decisions as an individual in your own life choices if you can? I would still say that it is, for four reasons:

It’s better to do something, however small, than to do nothing at all.

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A person drinking from a reusable water bottle. They have blue and purple hair and a black vest and are standing on a balcony. Photo by @lauranicus

While a positive change might have a tiny impact, that’s still a greater impact than not making that change. One fewer plastic fork  going to landfill is better than that fork going to landfill, one day eating plant based food results in fractionally less animal produce being consumed, one flight or car journey avoided is better than adding that journey’s worth of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

We do need to be aware of the relative impact of different actions, and watch out for the feeling that doing one thing gives us license not to do a bigger thing. A KeepCup does not offset a transatlantic flight. I would certainly recommend doing your research on the magnitude of impact different choices have, some of which may surprise you. It’s also important to always keep in mind that all choices are not equally accessible to all people, and avoid smug moralising about being able to do things that others may not, such as abled people giving up straws. But if you can navigate these pitfalls, small actions are better than no actions at all.

It’s a starting point

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A single seedling growing out of the soil. Photo by Gelgas on Pexels.com

I recently listened to an excellent interview with Steve D’Arcy on Permaculture for the People, in which he discussed the way the permaculture movement could be more inclusive and tackle structural factors in order to aspire to a more inclusive future. Even he was not entirely dismissive of individual actions however. For people for whom individual choices are accessible, they can be a useful entry point into the wider environmental movement, a first step the encourages exploration of wider issues. For some people, encountering campaigns against flushing plastics such as sanitary products or contact lenses down the toilet are the first time they’ve been asked to consider what resources go into manufacturing the products they use in their daily lives and where they go after they dispose of them. From there it’s a small step to considering why businesses are enthusiastic to promote reductions in the consumption of products that are a cost for them to provide, such as carrier bags and straws, but lobby vigourously against attempts to control the consumption of products they profit from the sale of, such as wet wipes, moving all the way up the scale to cars and fossil fuels. I’d hope it also prompts people to consider why not everyone has access to locally grown, pesticide and plastic free fresh produce or safe cycle lanes, and how society could be changed to facilitate this. Although sadly too often the assumption seems to be lack of effort on the part of the people who lack access to these things, this can at least be a conversational entry point to raise issues of social justice with people who may never have considered them before.

It makes people more likely to listen to you

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A discussion being led on a permacuture course. A teacher sits by a blackboard in a large greenhouse, surrounded by a circle of people sitting on reclaimed furniture. Photo by Transition Heathrow, CC0 licensed.

No one likes a hypocrite. The revelation that a Greenpeace director regularly commuted between Luxembourg and Amsterdam by plane did serious damage to their credibility as an organisation campaigning on climate change. People are far more likely to listen to someone walking the walk as well as talking the talk, and being seen to be trying to minimise your own footprint can definitely make people more likely to respect your commitment when taking about larger global issues.

As well as consistency, being seen to make changes in your own life can help communicate the urgency of the issue. A pivotal moment in my own journey of realisation that climate change was more than a mere intellectual concern but would affect my own life and those of the people I love was a conversation I had with a  lecturer at university, someone I respected on both an academic and a personal level. He used a wheelchair and told me about his choice to move from a two storey house to a bungalow because he was concerned that in the near future electricity for the stairlift he used to get between floors would become either unavailable or too expensive to use. Perhaps irrationally, the fact that one person I respected took this threat seriously enough to make a radical lifestyle change did more to convince me of the seriousness of the issue than thousands of pages of meticulous research ever could. And I’m not alone: recent research has found that an astonishing 57% of people surveyed who knew someone who has given up flying because of climate change said that they fly less because of this example.

It keeps me sane

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A serene picture of a woman in sunglasses and a blue shirt watching the ocean. Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.com

For me, taking small actions in my everyday life give me a sense of agency, and the mental health impact of that cannot be overstated.

This is absolutely horrible time in human history to love the natural world, when it’s being desecrated all around us, and that takes certainly takes a toll on my mental health. Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) once described being a naturalist as being like being in an art gallery crammed with the most beautiful art imaginable and watching people burn it down around you. It is an absolutely horrible feeling to feel like just by existing you’re destroying the thing you love most, and personally I find that any actions I can take to counteract that feeling help me cope mentally.

I appreciate that physically attending protests and actions feel empowering to many people, but personally I find them hugely dispiriting, seeing huge numbers of engaged, determined people come together to do something that very rarely has any discernible impact. Whereas I can point to physical, tangible outcomes from the actions I took in my everyday life – I grew that cucumber, published that blog post, patched those trousers, baked a cake people thought was delicious and afterwards revealed it was vegan, got a compost caddy in my work kitchen – and to me they feel like progress, feel as though I’m moving forward and helping change things. Maybe in the long term the protests and actions will have a greater effect, but in the short term these tiny actions help me keep going.

I find some environmental actions to be healing and nurturing in their own right too. Cycling in the sunshine, along bridalways frothy with cow parsley is exercise for the body and a tonic for the soul. Kneading bread, chopping vegetables, growing plants, mending and knitting are all ways to reduce my reliance on products manufactured, distributed and disposed of with questionable environmental impacts but are also calm, grounding activities that bring me quiet joy. And doing things to care for yourself and sustain yourself mentally is important, none of us can help the planet or each other if we’re curled up in bed staring at blankly at the wall too depressed to even feed ourselves.

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Quiet joys: home made kimchi and daffodil. Own photo.

Finally, if you have the resources to do so after a while it becomes hard not to take these actions. I’m going to share a piece of Quaker writing here because it best illustrates what I mean, but please understand that I’m using it as an illustration and not trying to proselytise. Quakers are committed to nonviolence and so didn’t carry weapons when that was common practice.

When William Penn was convinced of the principles of Friends, and became a frequent attendant at their meetings, he did not immediately relinquish his gay apparel; it is even said that he wore a sword, as was then customary among men of rank and fashion. Being one day in company with George Fox, he asked his advice concerning it, saying that he might, perhaps, appear singular among Friends, but his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist, and moreover, that Christ had said, ‘He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’ George Fox answered, ‘I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.’ Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword, and George said to him, ‘William, where is thy sword?’ ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.’

Samuel Janney, 1852

If you know that something you enjoy is harmful then sooner or later the amount of pleasure you get from it will be outweighed by the knowledge of the harm it’s doing. And I have definitely found this – I ate meat for as long as I could, I flew for as long as I could, I bought coffee in disposable cups for as long as I could, but eventually I stopped enjoying these things they stopped being worth the cognitive dissonance.

In conclusion I think George Monbiot is being unduly harsh.

If your environmental activism doesn’t go beyond Instagramming the cute bamboo cutlery set you bought then yes it’s unlikely to be of much practical use, but no one I know stops there. Individual actions can cause us to reflect, inspire others and keep us sane and strong in a terrifying world that needs us to keep struggling. It’s better to light a (petroleum product-free, equitably manufactured) candle than it is to curse the darkness.

One thought on “Pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks

  1. Pingback: The Amazon is still burning. What can we in the UK do to help? – Tangled Bank

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