This opinion piece appeared in the Business Day on 23 May 2017. It can be seen here.
Individual buying patterns are overshadowed by the effect of corporates and governments on the environment
So, you drive a Toyota Prius, you don’t eat red meat, you only buy organic food, you’ve started buying clothes made from organic bamboo, your household-cleaning products contain no nasty chemicals, you’ve got LED lightbulbs throughout your home and you’ve reluctantly decided to have only one child, despite really wanting more.
Are you now assured your place in a green heaven? Are you now confident your child will not turn to you in your dotage and blame you for the climate spiralling out of control? Can you have your cake and eat it too?
There is an argument that we cannot buy our way out of the climate crisis — that green consumerism is an oxymoron.
Environmental activist Derrick Jensen says green consumerism (now worth about $5-trillion globally) and other acts of “green thrift”, such as having shorter showers, is a “campaign of systematic misdirection” because it assigns blame to the individual instead of those who actually create the problems and wield real power within the economic system.
He argues that it is not individuals who create climate crises but corporations, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and compliant governments.
To support his thesis, he compared the consumption of water and energy and the production of waste between individuals in the US and the corporate sector. Unsurprisingly, individual consumption contributed little to the overall totals.
We can do similar ballpark calculations for SA. Starting with water: only 12% of SA’s water is reserved for domestic home use, municipalities use a further 14% in their day-to-day operations, the commercial sector uses 11% and the agriculture sector a whopping 63%. In terms of energy, the residential sector consumes about 20% of all energy generated in SA, industry accounts for about 45%, transport 30% and the remaining 5% is split between the agricultural and commercial sectors.
Because of poor reporting, finding accurate statistics on waste is difficult. The information that is available shows SA produces 110-million tonnes of waste every year, of which about 90% ends up in landfill sites.
About 60-million tonnes of this waste is characterised as “general waste”. Of this general waste, about 12-million tonnes comes from municipalities, which includes household waste and waste produced by municipalities in carrying out their daily functions. The remaining 50-million tonnes are produced by coal-burning power stations and heavy industry in the forms of fly-ash, bottom ash, slag and toxic waste.
What all this means is that, at worst, South African citizens directly consume about 12% of the country’s water and 20% of the energy and produce about 9% of the waste.
This is not to assume that all South Africans consume and create waste equally — 12% of citizens still have no access to electricity, nearly 10% of South Africans still have no access to piped water, while millions more share single communal taps. Low-income households produce about 0.4kg of waste per day, while high-income households produce 1.3kg. Jensen’s assertion that green consumerism is a fraud is as relevant in SA as it is in the US.
The first problem with green consumerism is that it is a campaign of systematic misdirection. This misdirection has been spectacularly successful — so much so that school textbooks, “green living” magazines and websites, corporate adverts and governments exhort us to “take responsibility”, while mainstream environmental organisations tell us to turn off our lights for an hour a year or avoid eating meat on Mondays. By blaming the individual for the climate crisis, corporations and governments are let off the hook.
The second problem is that it relies entirely on the widely discredited neoclassical economic argument that rational consumers’ choices will lead producers to manufacture environmentally friendly products.
But as Dr Mike Hannis from Bath Spa University notes, “consumer power” cannot do so because of the overwhelming power of the producers of goods and services. Information about the products or services we consume is mediated and distorted by global advertising (a $600bn-a-year industry), which continually exposes us to an “intense barrage of sophisticated commercial messages of all kinds” that tell us happiness can be found only in consumption.
This information asymmetry leads to the creation of needs we didn’t even know we had and the perpetual replacement of products that don’t need replacing due to planned obsolescence. It also leads to the nonsense that much green consumerism actually is.
For example, we can buy the oxymoronic notion of “green fashion”: organic fruit that is available year-round; ethical bottled water or organic palm oil sourced from land that was previously virgin rainforest in Indonesia. It leads to blatant lies, as the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal demonstrates.
The argument for consumer power also assumes that people have choices.
But how can people in cities such as Cape Town choose not to drive their cars or get into taxis when there is no viable and affordable public transport system?
How can low-income households afford to buy premium-priced organic produce? How can people choose to live in environmentally sound housing when no such housing exists? How can people choose to buy “green energy” when their only option is to buy from coal-fired power stations?
As Heather Rogers argues in Green Gone Wrong: How our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, consumers have only ever been passengers. It’s the industrial producers who have been doing all the driving.
All of these problems speak to the lie at the heart of green consumerism.
The prevailing economic orthodoxy is wedded to the idea of perpetual growth, which is premised on the continual need to increase production and consumption.
This means hypercapitalism will never voluntarily accept reductions in production and consumption. To do so would be to accept a reduction in profits in a culture where profit is the only objective.
The only thing that will lead to a reduction in production and consumption is organised political resistance. But as Jensen notes, green consumerism has cleverly “redefined us from citizens to consumers, reducing our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming”. Therefore we must reject green consumerism as a solution, for it is only through large-scale collective public resistance against corporate interests, international financial institutions and compliant governments that we can hope to manage the climate crisis.
Therefore, we must organise, lobby, boycott, vote and vociferously protest. We must campaign for the tighter regulation of corporate power, for environmentally sustainable and equitable transport and housing systems, for higher taxes on the rich and corporates (reversing decades of tax cuts) to enable massive investment in renewable energy and climate-change mitigation and adaptation, for economic equity, and for a socially conscious instrumentalist state that is interested in equity and our long-term survival, not just short-term gain at any expense.
This is a monumental task given the hollowing out of the state via privatisation and deregulation and the hyperindividualism (to reject consumption we have to reject established social norms) that characterises the hypercapitalism of the neoliberal project.
This is made even harder in SA by gangster capitalism. But it is a critically necessary task and one that is possible.
The signs are already there that we can rediscover ourselves as social human beings, intimately connected to one another and to the earth. A diverse community of millions protested against the Dakota access pipeline in the US, about 13-million voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative vision in the UK elections, trillions of dollars are being divested from fossil fuel companies and, closer to home, thousands have supported Reclaim the City’s sustainable vision for SA’s cities while new coal-fired and nuclear power stations have been stopped.
Oh and, if you can afford it, drive that Prius and buy that local, organic food from your farmers’ market. These acts do make a small difference — but don’t expect them to change the world.