Letting the big ones get away

Somewhere in the last quarter of the 20th century, between the fuel shortage crises, global warming and the irreversible devastation of fragile ecosystems as the global population hit six billion, news hit the headlines that there was a problem with the environment. This discovery was followed by the realization that if humans want to continue enjoying such luxuries as clean drinking-water, non-toxic food and having ground above sea-level to build homes on, there would have to be some changes made in the current rates of consumption.

Unless you belong to a privileged handful of people still in denial about the state of the planet, chances are also good that you will yearn to discover any way that these processes of over-consumption can be reversed. Enter in the ever-responsive corporate world, which has capitalized consumers’ environmental concerns by making “green,” or eco-viability, a selling point for products. This has been accompanied by a slew of media sources eager to point out how individuals can make their consumption choices count as a form of environment activism. The motivational message taken from the new green movement recycles some important motifs from other aspects of modern discourse. It tells us a compelling story in which a solitary hero/ine (you, the consumer) can make a positive difference — maybe even save the world — through their own personal choices, of course. Cue the triumphant, heroic music.

The problem with this compelling story is that responsibility for depleting the Earth’s limited resources is not shared equally. Developed nations exhaust far more raw materials than developing nations, and, globally, corporations and governmental policies play a far larger role in dictating patterns of consumption than individuals ever could. The hard truth of the matter is that when it comes to power, writer George Orwell said it best: “some are more equal than others.” As much as every personal choice to cut down waste does make a difference, turning the tide of environmental devastation will require drastic structural changes to current models of production and distribution. Figuring out viable ways to implement the necessary systemic changes is a problem which is considerably stickier and more complicated than buying the right brand of shampoo. Heroic music fades out.

Before falling into the comfortable rut of blaming governments and evil corporations for all of our societal ills, it’s worth keeping in mind that these governments and corporations operate in conjunction with the limitations of conventional economics. In the documentary Who’s Counting: Sex, lies and global economics, political economist Marilyn Waring reveals that the market model measures productivity in terms of raw currency but has no way of taking into account such things as the environmental and social impact of a practice. She uses the example of the Exxon Valdez oil spill to illustrate this point: this disaster counts as a “productive” incident because the cost of cleaning-up can be quantified within the market, while the environmental damage it caused can not. As long as the big culprits are focused on the bottom line but continue to be situated in an economic system that bears no relation to the tangible reality of Earth’s quickly depleting resources, it will be difficult to motivate them to change their practices.

Seen in this light, the main need served by the existing eco-friendly alternative products is not to save the planet, but rather to help individuals lessen their personal feelings of guilt and powerlessness. Then, because these alternatives exist, the fact that we’re continuing on a downward spiral can be blamed on individuals who, for whatever reason, have not chosen to embrace the “right” product.

There is also an inherent class bias in this blame game since virtually any eco-friendly alternative is more expensive than the standard product. So, that means that the same people who are already consuming the most are now also getting credit for having a social conscience by making ethical purchases.

The point is eco-activism is going to have to re-calibrate its sights on movements that will actually make a difference instead of simply creating ways for people to feel good about themselves for doing the “right thing.” The following three iconic trends of the green shift provide a few small examples of some of the ways in which the creation of eco-friendly alternatives can actually re-enforce the status quo instead of challenging it.

Cloth tote bags: successfully introduced as an alternative to the usual plastic variety. There’s no question that using these cuts down on the amount of plastic used in making grocery bags, but the majority of plastic accumulated at the store comes from the food’s packaging. Cutting down the carrying case is nice, but cutting down on packaging would be better.

Organic shade-grown fair trade coffee: Organic shade grown coffee is the pricier alternative to regular methods of coffee production. It markets itself on being free of pesticides and grown in a method that is less damaging to the Earth’s nutrients and therefore better in the long-term. Moreover, fair-trade theoretically means that the coffee growers and producers in less wealthy nations are getting more money for their goods, lessening social inequity. The problem is that fair-trade standards are not universal, or easily enforced. Getting certified as fair trade is an expensive process, and there is less demand for fair trade than there is fair trade coffee available. Most notably, a small NGO may choose to use fair trade coffee, but the impact they have on the global scale is infinitely less than what a large outlet like Wal-Mart could have if they changed corporate policy.

Organic food: Instead of changing all farming practices, developing alternatives or possibly using the Earth to mediate what and how people can eat, we have specialty organic foods. So, eating ethically is available only if you can afford shopping at specialty organic food markets. Isn’t that lovely? Ethics are, as always, available only to the wealthy.

At the same time as these strategies have a certain limitation to them, there is still value to be found in the eco-conscious trend. As long as the current mentality focuses on looking for fads, it may as well be a competition to see who can be the greenest person around. If this competition forces people to look harder for viable alternatives or place pressure on the real culprits, so much the better. However, as long as current consumption rates continue within the same patterns, at some point we will reach a critical point when we will have to actually make drastic lifestyle changes. Since the “green” issue is now in the public eye, this can be a great opportunity to draw attention to the deeper systemic problems at play.