Evil Consumers and Good Environmentalists

I was driving my seven-year-old son home from school today. Of course, he was playing with my iPhone in the backseat–I know, so much for engaged parenting. Well, to make myself feel better, I only download the games that are classified as “educational” and since I do not play with them first I always listen in attentively.

He is starting out on the game Recycle Hero. The first thing we learn is that we are on the Planet Yogapolis where everybody recycles (singing). The Evil Queen Ignorantia has sent an evil army to contaminate the Earth. So the Mayor calls the Yogome Squad to help, with the assistance of colorful trashcans.

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A moral act?

At this point, I feel like pulling off the road and taking the game away from him because I believe it does more harm than good by over-individualizing – and moralizing – environmentally friendly behaviors. The notion that “our private actions have important public consequences” has become an ingrained part of the common sense, taken for granted assumptions of modern environmentalism. Such that, decisions as to how we heat or cool our homes, or how and what we choose to buy to consume in them, are viewed as entailing a powerful environmental impact.

But I am uneasy with the extent to which this perspective implies that it is uneducated–Queen Ignorantia, anyone?– and irresponsible individuals, rather than unsustainable and unjust social and economic relationships, that are the root cause of the environmental crisis. Yes, nurturing responsibility for sustainability is important, provided that it does not take the focus off the larger problems, like corporate pollution. Moreover, one can argue that as consumers become increasingly responsible for self-managing environmental risks through consumption decisions, the state has increasingly deferred responsibility for environmental regulation.

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Where can I buy this?

In many respects, this consumer environmentalism, with its commitment to exercise consumer power to advocate for the greater societal good, takes over the tradition of the New Deal consumer policies, grassroots consumer movements of the 1930s, and consumer activism of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970 (See Cohen’s book for an excellent exploration).

Yes, conditions are certainly ripe for the revival of a new consumer movement that is focused on duties more than on rights. However, as a 2012 study by National Geographic indicates, U.S. consumers still score the lowest on environmentally sustainable consumption (the last one out of the 17 countries included in the study). This may be an indication that consumer movements by themselves are unlikely to have a considerable impact without the stimulation of committed activists, inside and outside the government.

In other words, unless we consider Americans to be the evil army of Queen Ignorantia, combating the environmental crisis is not about personal characteristics. And if history is of any lesson, consumer movements are the strongest when the government is empowered to intervene in the market. I love when Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince says

It’s a question of discipline. When you’ve finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.

However, this is only a small part, not the answer. I would like my son to understand the importance of recycling. But, I also want him to understand that not recycling does not make someone an evil person, rather there may be a multitude of social forces that make recycling either unavailable or unimportant for that person.

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2 thoughts on “Evil Consumers and Good Environmentalists

  1. I “do my part” but it is definitely easier when it is supported by the local government. Here in the SF Bay Area recycling bins are every where, they accept a wide variety of plastics and even have compost, and a lot communities have trash that is automatically sorted. As with most things, it is so much easier to take personal responsibility if the government (or some other structure) creates the right conditions.

  2. This begs a question – so who is responsible for ‘personal responsibility’? ‘Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ is a nice idea, but can hardly be implemented on a society-wide scale. But I am mostly bothered by implications of morality in this kind of approached – I guess I similarly argue against many of the weigh loss programs

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