In the essential film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard says, “Our primary identity has become that of consumer.” This is certainly a disturbing notion for those of us who are trying to steer our society toward sustainability. Perhaps even more disturbing, though, is the way that environmentalists endorse and ultimately perpetuate this mutation of our humanity.
The vast majority of times green groups ask people to act, it centers on changing our consumption habits. At first glance this makes sense. If consumption is the problem, shouldn’t we try to change the way people consume? The catch is that every time we focus on how individuals can change their consumption, we are sending the message that their real power to make a difference lies in how they shop. This simply reinforces the cultural myth that the most important part of who we are as people is our role as a consumer.
That myth is a lie. We are much more than consumers. We are citizens of what was once the greatest democracy on the planet, citizens with the ability and responsibility to change our government. We are human beings with the power to inspire others through our creativity, our sacrifice, and our courage. These are the parts of humanity we must point to when we call others to action.
The focus on individual consumption habits comes from the notion that changes on any level start with personal transformation. That is certainly true, but not all personal transformations are created equal. Changing people from being obsessed with consumption to being obsessed with green consumption is not going to get us to real sustainability. We need transformations away from consumer-centered identity into human-centered identity. We need personal evolution into engaged and demanding citizens and into bold and creative activists. We need the kind of transformations that awaken us to our own potential and remind us that we are not helpless.
Of course, those consumption habits do need to change if we’re going to have a livable future. But to get that sustainable culture, who we are as consumers will have to become a small part of who we are as human beings. When we start people on that road of personal transformation, we automatically attack that pathological overconsumption. The spiritual void which begs for material consumption begins to be filled by a more human identity. In order to truly be the change we want to see in the world, we environmental leaders might have to stop talking to people about their consumption so much.
When I ask people to take action against climate change, they often think what I’m asking them to do is impossible. If someone only sees herself as a consumer, it makes sense that she cannot see her potential to be an agent of fundamental change in our society, economy or political system. I suspect this is responsible for much of the helplessness many people feel when addressing huge issues like climate change. Our job in Peaceful Uprising is to show people that they are not helpless.
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Michael Mielke wrote:
Certainly we are consumers and we know it. We try to lighten-up our carbon footprint, forego meat and buy squiggly light bulbs. And some more. But, we are trapped. Trapped into the transportation system that we “must have for _____.” Trapped into coal’s electricity, even if we Blue Sky, and solar is way too expensive. Where are the breaks for solar, where is the meaningful mass transit? That is why the word impossible seems real, why helplessness seems a cul-de-sac. But, it’s because we don’t know what to do or how to do it. For examples: we don’t know how to scale the solutions in-time, how to genuinely displace coal or get a different transportation system. But opportunities for collective action exist and need our participation. Consequent examples abound. Our Solar Cities Grant needs public participation to not only gets the right solar tax credits and more, but also to push the public entities to pony-up more. One of those public entities is the Public Service Commission, they need to decouple rates, another is FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: http://www.ferc.gov/ . The public needs to megaphone its input; and remember that public lands are a large part of what is involved in transmission issues. States, nations, cities have installed the infrastructure and made the deals for electric transit, public participation here is required. And mass transit won’t happen without the public demanding a meaningful system. Here in Utah we have been part of a successful effort in stopping numerous new coal plants in Western US. Sierra Club has led the charge and needs citizen groups behind them. We need to exemplify local food production, part of relocalization --- clearly a citizens cooperating model, while we advocate for best practice across the world. Plant trees while working internationally to reforest and stop deforestation. See the 350slc home page and Jim Garrison’s work. He needs citizen involvement. We could cause the Blue Sky program to triple along with incentives from Rocky Mountain for efficiencies. I could triple the examples here. Bottom line is that once we know what is needed then groups of us need to represent all of us and get after it in the happenin’ and waiting movements that are in-play. Transformation happens a bit from within. But mostly from without. Once you get involved and work for the good stuff, you are transformed by your behavior. Take decisive action for something and you are transformed. Get on-it is the transformation formula. And there is a full array of possibilities for your actions once the overall roadmap and vision are seen. That roadmap and vision is clear and convincing. Gore hits it in his OUR CHOICE. In October 2009 Lester Brown published Plan B, 4.0. I like Gore’s best. It is granular. So, it might be just a matter of taking the opportunities just in front of us for transformation to naturally result---if we act, if we individually take the decisive next few steps as part of consequent groups pushing for the right stuff.November 9, 2009 | 10:04 pm
Rebecca Hall wrote:
are no grocery stores--just liquor store after liquor store after liquor store. If environmentalists believe we are going to solve the climate crisis by changing our personal habits of consumption, putting aside the way Tim correctly problematizes (sorry-historian-speak but the word is so useful) the disempowering status of "consumer," I'd like to know how these new green consumers are going to address the fundamental disparities in access to resources.November 10, 2009 | 8:40 am
Reilly Capps wrote:
I love it, Tim. It always amazes me that people know -- study after study shows, and smart people read them -- that things make them happy for five minutes only. And they still go for things over ideas, experiences, travels, family, friends, food. Anyway, good column.November 11, 2009 | 12:04 am
Teresa Marino wrote:
When something is worth fighting for, it is never easy. And victory is never handed on a silver platter. As a person, I am distinguishing myself by my values, not by my purchasing power. I do use my purchasing power to encourage growth in my local economy. When I talk with people/friends/classmates/family about what I care about (not cable tv), I get a lot of glazed over eyes. If I were to ask what happened on Top Chef, they perk up. If I mention S 510 the food bill that is HR 2749 counterpart their brains flatline again. Very frustrating. My question is, how do you show someone another perspective without getting their "dead fish" eyes?November 20, 2009 | 3:54 pm
Michael Mielke wrote:
Teresa, "Dead fish" eyes are all the rage now most everywhere I go. My shot at getting beneath those eyes is not to argue the extent or degree of climate catastrophe looming---or even to try to convince folks that it is real. My attempt at "breaking through" is something like this: If 39/40 scientists around the world believe that climate chaos is coming and it means full catastrophe, isn't it maybe a "one-in-six" chance that the 97.4% might be right. Since they say that without lots of change we are all going to fry, do we play Russian Roulette with our children, with one bullet in the chamber for each of them, or do we do everything we possibly can to "not put the gun to their head, even if they probably will not be blown away. Because they just might." Perhaps we should try to get people to see, not that we face global climate chaos, but that even if it is only a small probability that we do, then we should get the "full court press" out against it.November 21, 2009 | 10:15 am