Climate Change and Consumption
Climate change has been a serious topic in Left and other progressive spaces for at least the past decade, and its importance increases daily. Scientists have been warning policymakers about the dangers of ignoring climate change, and we have missed several deadlines on tasks that need to be done to roll it back or slow it down. Everyone is now rightfully expressing their opinions on climate change and what needs to be done to scale back humanity’s contribution to it. This piece is particularly geared towards our Comrades in Global North countries, not our own people in Jamaica.
Some persons are proposing that everyone should take individual action to reduce their waste, their use of fuel, their use of electricity, and their meat consumption. These are unrealistic proposals; at this point, we don’t have time to rely on individual actions and consumer choice to bring about mass-scale change. Our Comrades in the Global North already know this, and we commend them for criticising such viewpoints.
The idea that individual action will be sufficient to drive mass-scale change, in the limited time we have, is nonsense. In pointing this out, however, some persons have made the mistake of saying other things that are total nonsense. It is correct that we can’t rely on individual consumers to make enough change, but some persons have made the ridiculous argument that consumption itself shouldn’t be blamed for climate change.
Consumption definitely deserves some blame for climate change. Persons who focus exclusively on big companies are equally as ignorant as those who focus exclusively on individual consumers. The error that persons make is that they try to separate consumption from production.
Production is done for consumption; if there was no consumer market, producers would have no way to make money. You’ve probably heard this before. However, what’s more obvious but often not spoken about is that if producers weren’t making something, consumers wouldn’t be able to consume it. Persons who think that we shouldn’t focus on consumption are silly if they think that focusing on production won’t inevitably change consumption.
The idea that scaling back humanity’s impact on the environment requires individuals to change their consumption patterns first is individualistic because it focuses on the agency of individuals and compares them, demanding praise for those who can afford to make certain choices while condemning those who simply can’t. On the flipside, the argument that individuals don’t need to make changes to their lifestyles is also individualistic because it allows the worst individuals to deflect blame to an abstract “system” that they have no understanding of, and expect that they won’t have to make any lifestyle changes if that system is changed or abolished.
A major problem so far is that persons look at production as systemic, but look at consumption as something individual. Production is systemic, but consumption is definitely not individual. Persons talk about “Capitalism” and only think about big corporations and production, but overconsumption is also a major part of Capitalism. Persons don’t only consume as individuals; people consume as entire societies. Consumption patterns in the Global North almost dictate how entire economies are organised in the Global South. Even though consumers aren’t the one organising the production, production is organised to suit whatever is in demand.
People in the Global North consume way more than people in the Global South; the global Capitalist system allows them to earn higher wages while consuming things for lower prices than much of the world. Fuel and energy are much more expensive in Jamaica than they are in the US, while food prices in both countries aren’t far from each other; this is despite minimum wage in the US being near 6 times minimum wage in Jamaica. This means that it is much cheaper for Americans to afford fuel, food, and consumer goods.
The level of consumption that Americans are accustomed to is unusual when compared to the Global South. We consume much less because we really have no choice; Americans have too much “consumer choice” and that is a part of the problem. Capitalism has led to the production of so many things that we do not need. Jamaican children eventually realise that we won’t be able to afford to buy or even see most of the things we see on television.
The solution to overconsumption is not to encourage individual consumers in wealthier societies to be more thoughtful about their consumption; they have gotten so accustomed to their lifestyles that they are too selfish to be trusted to make sacrifices. This is why they don’t want to talk about consumption.
Individuals will have no choice but to make lifestyle changes if we want to combat climate change and take serious steps to protect the environment; these lifestyle changes, however, are not what will lead to environmental protection. The general argument of this piece isn’t that consumer choice will lead to change, not because consumers aren’t to blame but rather because it is a bit too late for that to work.
The changes that we make to attack climate change and protect the environment will have to be targeted at big companies, but they will still result in inevitable changes of individuals’ lifestyles. This is because a systemic change affects the individual more easily than individual change can affect the system.
In essence, changes in consumer choice won’t help climate change at this point, but things that will help climate change will cause drastic changes for consumer choice. This is simple logic. You can say that “we shouldn’t blame those who consume X” and that’s fine, but if you want to attack those who produce X, then there will be less of X available to consumers anyway. Whether consumers consume less of X or producers produce less of X, there will be less consumption of X.
We can say that individual consumers can’t be blamed for the current state of the environment, because consumption isn’t an individual thing. We can also say that they can’t be responsible for using “consumer choice” to drive change at this point, because climate change is on a scale that we will need to implement systemic changes. While accepting both these things, however, it is also necessary to accept that there will have to be major changes to consumption and lifestyles, even with changes that target production rather than consumption itself.