Recently, many people have begun speaking up on social media about environmental issues. For a specific type of person – if not a majority, then a vast chunk of people raising their voices lately about the burning Amazon rainforest and the environment in general – the call to action comes down to an individual choice: what do I buy, or what do I not buy? What small, personal gestures can I make with things that I bought? By voting with your wallet, by taking up little hobbies, you can, so the logic goes, tangibly albeit infinitesimally improve the situation.
There are three fundamental problems with this individualistic way of thinking.
Firstly, we should abandon consumer politics because it consistently fails to achieve its own stated goals. Take, for example, the recent plastic recycling scandals: even when we think we are doing the right thing, we are not doing the right thing. We vomited our garbage all over southeast Asia and felt great about it; incidentally, this is the lesson to take home from all liberal politics everywhere.
Likewise, we all know that Amazon the company is evil, but so long as they saturate the marketplace with products that people can’t get elsewhere for a reasonable price, or even if they simply provide a better consumer experience, huge multitudes of people all over the world will continue shopping there. Even if we accepted that we hate the idea of shopping with them, we do all kinds of things every day that we hate: we work for bosses who threaten or insult us, we pay incalculable sums of rent money in return for nothing, we eat meat from animals who lead miserable, tortured lives, we drive though hours of stressful and perilous traffic – because often there isn’t much alternative.
Boycotts must be organized and disciplined; when necessary, they must provide alternatives that people can both enjoy and afford – which individualistic consumer politics simply cannot do. The environmental situation has been quite predictably and sharply deteriorating over a period of decades; no previous political tactic or strategy has worked thus far, and we need to ask ourselves, Why? Any strategy on climate action that wants to be taken seriously must account for past failures and also do something ambitious and large-scale. The failure to do both of these things explains the endless cycles of consumer politics and other such meaningless activist feel-goodery in the face of an impervious status quo. As the author of a now infamous political pamphlet once wrote, “It is not enough to be right; we must also win.”
To stop and reverse climate catastrophe, we must identify its sources. This leads us to the second fundamental problem with consumer politics: a vanishingly small number of governments and private businesses are responsible for the overwhelming amount of pollution and environmental damage. The July 2017 Carbon Majors report, for example, found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions. The problem is still more acute: a mere 25 private and state entities produced over half of global industry emissions since 1988. The US military alone, besides killing many tens of millions of people in the last several decades, is the single largest polluter on the planet, more than 140 other countries combined.
What is necessary at this point is a direct and radical intervention. Let’s put a name to the problem: capitalism must become the enemy. Capitalism is killing us, and using the tools of consumer politics we are unable to stop it. Governments favorable to capitalism, who intervene in the markets every day to keep it going, who bail out the multinationals, who wage senseless wars without end – these governments, these parties, this very small, wealthy, and specific political class of people, will not help us. Likewise, relying on private businesses to altruistically solve problems that would damage their profits – their sole reason for existence – has not and will not ever work. A coordinated mass movement of people living in the world’s top polluting countries must materially stop everyday life from going on.
License to kill
Returning to the Amazon, look at who is starting the fires – wealthy landowners, ranchers, industrial farms. Circulating a Facebook post condemning beef consumption will not put the fires out, nor will it stay the hands that set them going. Moreover, this thinking attacks the problem from the wrong end of the equation (consumption), when it should be attacked from the supply and production end. This is the third fundamental problem with consumer politics: private companies should not be allowed to murder us all for the sake of their profit. They must be stopped.
Such people, however, often as not have a right to do as they please. All the great polluters of the world have every right to frack, to drill, to dump, to burn, to kill. People who are serious about stopping climate change must take that right from them, nationalize their companies, jail their executives, and prevent anyone from doing what they did. Abruptly and unrepentant, we must dismantle the political machinery, infrastructure, and system of property rights that enabled climate change. Otherwise, we should find a cause more worthy of our attention than what’s for dinner.