The first place most of us start when comes to taking action on our climate and ecological emergency is green consumerism. Unfortunately, for many us, green consumerism ends up being a dead end. We think it’s all we can do, or all we need to do. This is exactly what the inactivists want us to think. We won’t escape climate catastrophe unless we demand systemic change – a future in which we all have better choices. Fortunately, there are three benefits from escaping the trap of green consumerism.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Being a Green Consumer Is a Start, but It Can Be a Dead End
Green Consumerism as the Ultimate Deflection Campaign
The Need for Systemic Change
Three Benefits of Escaping the Trap of Green Consumerism



Being a Green Consumer Is a Start, but It Can Be a Dead End

The first place most of us start when comes to taking action on our climate and ecological emergency is green consumerism. If we have the means, we aim to buy sustainable products with minimal packaging. We try to buy organic and local whenever possible or minimize our consumption of animal products. We recycle consciously, or drive an electric vehicle, or minimize our plane flights, or install solar panels on our house. We faithfully turn off lights when we leave the room, turn off the water when we’re brushing our teeth, and bring reusable grocery bags to the store.

Our green consumer actions are great. We shouldn’t stop doing them. When these kinds of actions catch on, corporations and businesses sometimes follow suit, changing what they offer and how they do things. Through green consumerism, we’re minimizing the environmental impact we have as individuals and families, which at the very least can be seen as an act of integrity. And, as many people are inclined to say, “If everyone ______, it would make a huge difference.”

The thing us, everyone is not going to make these green consumer choices, at least until doing so is every bit as easy, inexpensive, and attractive as the many choices we have that are decidedly not green. Green consumerism will remain an option only for the middle class or above until laws and regulations bring all consumer goods and services up to a minimal level of sustainability expectations. Not only that, even if everyone did become a model green consumer (an extremely unlikely scenario), it still wouldn’t reverse global heating and ecological collapse, and certainly not fast enough. As Michael Mann puts it in the book The New Climate War, although consumer choice can influence the market, it “doesn’t build high-speed railways, fund research and development in renewable energy, or place a piece on carbon emissions. Any real solution must involve both individual action and systemic change.”[i]

Unfortunately, for many us, green consumerism ends up being a dead end. We think it’s all we can do, or all we need to do. This is exactly what the inactivists want us to think (the “inactivists,” as Michael Mann calls them, being those opposed to action against global heating and ecological breakdown because they profit from things remaining as they are).


Green Consumerism as the Ultimate Deflection Campaign

For many decades, corporate and political interests seeking to prevent government regulation of their activities have waged clever deflection campaigns that shift the blame for negative consequences to the behavior of individuals. For example, the Keep America Beautiful organization was founded in 1953 by beverage companies who wanted to continue selling drinks in disposable containers because they made more money that way. The thing was, these containers were ending up as trash strewn across the landscape, so citizens sought to pass bottle bills which would require people to pay a deposit on their beverage containers and thus be motivated to return them instead of littering.

The beverage companies strongly opposed bottle bills because the added costs of the deposits were likely to decrease people’s purchases and therefore the company profits. Keep America Beautiful invested in PR like the classic “Crying Indian” ad, which showed a native American (not actually a native American, it turns out), who ponders a landscape covered in trash as a tear rolls down his cheek. The ad’s narrator says, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.”[ii] In other words, it’s not the proliferation of disposable containers that’s the problem, it’s that some people are disrespectful slobs.

The climate version of the classic deflection campaign is the online “personal carbon footprint calculator,” promoted by British Petroleum (BP) in the mid 2000’s. I know I was eager to find out my own carbon footprint, and what I could do to reduce it. I was horrified to discover that despite having no children, living in an apartment, driving very little, being vegetarian and buying organic whenever I could, the calculator said it would require FOUR planet earth’s worth of resources for everyone to live like I did. I tweaked my numbers a bit to see where I could reduce or change things and make a difference, but I couldn’t see a path to consuming a single planet’s worth of resources unless I left my life behind and camped under a tree somewhere. I definitely got the message that the crisis we were in was the fault of greedy, self-indulgent people like me. Thinking like this can either be so discouraging we give up trying to make changes, or we can get so obsessed with making the right consumer choices we have little attention or energy left for demanding systemic change. If you feel at all like this, I recommend reading the article, Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint Is Exactly What Big Oil Wants You to Do by Auden Schendler.

Green consumerism is a positive, necessary thing. At the very least it’s getting us used to the ways we need to live in a sustainable world. But ideally it doesn’t become a dead end, and ideally we don’t walk around convinced that our personal choices are to blame for our climate and ecological crisis. Just 100 companies have been the source of over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.[iii] The major culprits are fossil fuel companies who seek to maximize profits for their shareholders and keep us dependent on oil, coal, and gas. If you had the option of fueling your car with clean energy and it was no more expensive or inconvenient than gas, wouldn’t you choose the clean energy?


The Need for Systemic Change

We make the best choices we can, but we also need systemic change, so everyone has the option of making better choices.[iv] For example, I would prefer not to fly because of its impact on climate. However, I live about 1,700 miles from my parents, sister, and extended family. It is important for our relationship that I see them once or twice a year. Sometimes I opt to take the Amtrak – the train – instead of the 3.5-hour airplane flight, but the trip is 37 hours long and involves two full nights on the train (sitting upright in a chair). In the age of COVID that is 10 times the amount of close-quarters exposure as a plane flight and requires me to take an additional 3-4 days off work in order to accommodate the trip. It is a huge inconvenience and considerable sacrifice to take the train instead of flying in the US, and I’m extremely unlikely to change that by being a faithful Amtrak customer. By comparison, if the US invested in high-speed rail comparable to the newer Japanese shinkansen lines, a train trip to visit my family could take less than ten hours.[v]

What makes green consumerism a trap is when we fail to think beyond it – to the ways our system limits and constrains the choices we have, and the ways it makes almost all of us complicit in the destruction of life on our planet no matter what we choose to buy or how we choose to live as individuals. Nothing could make the inactivists happier – they can keep us satisfied by tossing us little bones in the form of credit cards that cause a tree to be planted each time you use them, or more sustainable packaging around all the stuff we buy, or the chance to buy an electric version of our SUV. None of this stuff is bad, of course, but it is far, far from enough. The company Amazon has pledged to reach net-zero carbon operation by 2040,[vi] but the entire planet needs to be halfway there by 2030. In the meantime, other companies continue to tap new sources of fossil fuels[vii] and the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are the highest they have been in human history.[viii]

We have influence as consumers, of course, but it is sad and dangerous if that’s the only way we can think of ourselves. We are also citizens – citizens who should vote, but also citizens who can and should engage our democratic process fully – by campaigning for candidates and good legislation, registering voters, serving as poll-watchers, showing up to the offices of our elected officials to hold them accountable, or even running for office ourselves. As citizens, it’s also important for us to do whatever we can to fight for real democracy, because ordinary people are going to demand climate action long before the corporations and moneyed classes are inclined to compromise their profits. Also, to whatever extent democracy is still operating, we are our government, and our government is us. It’s meant to serve our interests – to protect us, to maintain our systems and our common resources. When it’s failing us, it’s no one’s fault but our own if we don’t demand change through whatever peaceful means are available to us.


Three Benefits of Escaping the Trap of Green Consumerism

There are three important benefits from escaping the trap of green consumerism. First, once we recognize our obsession with it distracts us from demanding systemic change, we start looking around for other things we can do. Second, it relieves us some of the pervasive guilt around our inability – or unwillingness – to make every sacrifice that would be required to live a completely pure lifestyle in terms of the climate and ecological emergency, at least for those of us living relatively comfortably in industrialized nations. This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t still try to make good choices, but it helps to recognize the system is rigged against us. It’s now so extreme that it would take so much time, energy, and resources to live a completely pure life (if it’s even possible), that you would have nothing left to devote to demanding systemic change. Again, just the way the inactivists like it.

The third important benefit of escaping the trap of green consumerism is that it makes it much easier to achieve solidarity within the climate movement, and to broaden that movement to include a much larger and more diverse group of people – something that’s going to be absolutely essential if we’re going to succeed. I wholeheartedly agree with an article I read three years ago, which has stuck with me ever since. It’s in Vox, written by Mary Annaise Heglar, is titled “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The subtitle says: “Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.” Heglar writes further:

The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics. When you consider that the same IPCC report [mentioned earlier] outlined that the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions come from just a handful of corporations — aided and abetted by the world’s most powerful governments, including the US — it’s victim blaming, plain and simple.

I suspect many of us avoid so-called “activist” spaces in part because we don’t want to be judged or pressured about our personal lifestyle choices. This concern is not unfounded. It’s not at all uncommon for folks in environmental circles to raise their eyebrows if you eat meat, drive a car, take a lot of plane flights, order things from Amazon, or buy your clothes from Target. Such folks would probably choke if you let on that, God forbid, you had six kids, drove a Hummer, or owned guns. Frankly, questions of personal lifestyle choice are frequently toxic to human relationships and to social movements, unless maybe a particular issue of choice is your single focus (and then your group is likely to alienate everyone outside it). There is really no limit to the number of parameters on which your choices can be judged ethically suspect.

Many groups taking action on the climate and ecological emergency are doing their best to focus on working together for systemic change. This means de-emphasizing personal consumer and lifestyle choices, although of course most of us are well aware of all the stuff we “should” do. People are people, though, so you very well may encounter judgement and pressure about your personal choices from certain individuals, or within certain activist cultures. If you encounter this, I encourage you to state confidently and clearly, “I do my best to make wise choices in my personal life, and I appreciate those choices being respected as my own business. In the meantime, I want to focus on bringing about systemic change because that is the only thing that’s going to save us.”



[i] Mann, Michael. The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back the Planet. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2021, page 61.









Picture Credit

Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

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