Environmentalism and the flight from politics

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[...] Throughout the 20th century, in fact, mainstream environmental-ism has demonstrated an ability to foster multiple and simultaneous interpretations on where we are and where we are heading.

But that ability has, today, clearly become impaired. Although public support for things environmental has never been greater, it is so because the public increasingly understands environmentalism as an individual, rational, cleanly apolitical process that can deliver a future that works without raising voices or mobilizing constituencies. As individual consumers and recyclers we are supplied with ample and easy means of 'doing our bit.' The result, though, is often dissonant and sometimes bizarre: consumers wearing 'save the earth' T-shirts, for example, speak passionately against recent rises in gasoline prices when approached by television news crews; shoppers drive all over town in their gasoline-

guzzling SUVs in search of organic lettuce or shade-grown coffee; and diligent recyclers expend far more fossil-fuel energy on the hot water spent to meticulously clean a tin can than is saved by its recycling.

Despite these jarring contradictions, the technocratic, sanitary and individualized framing of environmentalism prevails, largely because it is continually reinforced. Consider, for example, recent millennial issues of Time and Newsweek that look to life in the future.13 They paint a picture of smart appliances, computer-guided automobiles, clean neighborhoods, eco-friendly energy systems, and happy citizens. How do we get to this future? Not through bold political leadership or citizen-based debate within enabling democratic institutions - but rather via consumer choice: informed, decentralized, apolitical, individualized. Corporations will build a better mousetrap, consumers will buy it, and society will be transformed for the better. A struggle-free eco-revolution awaits, one made possible by the combination of technological innovation and consumer choice with a conscience.

[...] Shocking images of a 'hole' in the ozone layer in the late 1980s, ubiquitous video on rainforest destruction, media coverage of global climate change and the warming of the poles: all this and more have brought the public to a new state of awareness and concern about the 'health of the planet.' What, though, is the public to do with this concern? Academic discussion and debate about global environmental threats focuses on distant international negotiations, complicated science fraught with uncertainty that seems to bedevil even the scientists, and nasty global politics. This is no place for the 'normal' citizen. Environmental groups often encourage people to act, but recommended action on global environmental ills is limited to making a donation, writing a letter, or - yes - buying an environmentally friendly product. The message on all fronts seems to be 'Act... but don't get in the way.' Confronted by a set of global problems that clearly matter and seeing no clear way to attack them, it is easy to imagine the lay public gravitating to individualistic, consumer-oriented measures.

[...] A privatization and individualization of responsibility for environmental problems shifts blame from State elites and powerful producer groups to more amorphous culprits like 'human nature' or 'all of us.' State elites and the core corporations upon which they depend to drive C economic growth stand to benefit from spreading the blame and cranking a the rotary of consumption.14

[...] Mainstream conversations about global sustainability advance Q the 'international conference' as the most meaningful venue for global 5' environmental problem-solving. It is here that those interests best able s

¡0 to organize at the international level - States and transnational corporations - hold the advantage in the battle to shape the conversation of H sustainability and craft the rules of the game. And it is precisely these 'w actors who benefit by moving mass publics toward private, individual, ¡^ well-intentioned consumer choice as the vehicle for achieving 'sustain-¡2 ability.'

It's more than coincidental that as our collective perception of en-v vironmental problems has become more global, our prevailing way of framing environmental problem-solving has become more individualized.

-o In the end, individualizing responsibility does not work - you can't plant o a tree to save the world - and as citizens and consumers slowly come to § discover this fact their cynicism about social change will only grow: 'you •¡5 mean after fifteen years of washing out these crummy jars and recycling "g them, environmental problems are still getting worse - geesh, what's the use?' Individualization, by implying that any action beyond the private and the consumptive is irrelevant, insulates people from the empowering experiences and political lessons of collective struggle for social change and reinforces corrosive myths about the difficulties of public life.15 By legitimating notions of consumer sovereignty and a self-balancing and autonomous market, it also diverts attention from political arenas that matter. In this way, individualization is both a symptom and a source of waning citizen capacities to participate meaningfully in processes of social change. If consumption, in all its complexity, is to be confronted, the forces that systematically individualize responsibility for environmental degradation must be challenged.

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