Photo via Adbusters

The lie of anti-consumerism

We don’t need to consume less – what we need is democratic and sustainable consumption

For years, we’ve been told by well-intentioned environmentalists that “consumerism” in the Global North is the culprit for everything from climate change to environmental degradation to global poverty.

It’s a narrative that becomes deafening around Earth Hour – when people are encouraged to switch off their lights for an hour – and Earth Day, which this year focused on ending plastic pollution. Then there’s Adbusters’ Buy Nothing Day, Banksy stencils, television’s Mr. Robot, and the obnoxiously large assortment of documentaries about minimalism.

Here’s the thing: consuming things is actually extremely good. We do not need people to consume less.

In fact, the very concept of “reducing consumption” presupposes that most people in Canada and elsewhere have consumption habits that can somehow be reduced. In the era of stagnant wages, increasingly precarious work, and eroding public services, it’s a noxious, tone-deaf, and fundamentally reactionary concept that absolves capitalism of its crimes – and should quickly be banished from serious leftist discourse.

Here’s the thing: consuming things is actually extremely good. We do not need people to consume less.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the consumption of energy and materials. The problem is that consumption is largely undemocratic, exploitative, and unsustainable: all realities that can be dramatically altered.

We know that many socially destructive sectors consume a vast chunk of resources. For example, the U.S. military is the institution which consumes the greatest amount of oil in the world. At last count, over half of the energy used in Canada was consumed by the industrial sector – the likes of mines, factories, and fossil fuel extraction. A 2011 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded that the top one per cent of income earners in B.C. emitted almost six times the amount of carbon pollution as residents in the bottom 10 per cent.

And corporations have created a status quo of obscene food waste, planned obsolescence, and entrenched fossil fuel interests that obstruct a rapid transition to low-carbon communities.

None of this has anything to do with the consumption habits of regular people: the worker who buys a discounted television at Walmart in order to find a few hours of relaxation from deeply alienating and underpaid labour isn’t the driving force behind the system that’s killing us and the planet.

This isn’t to suggest that nothing needs to change, or that we shouldn’t be cognizant of our personal impacts on our surroundings. Overall, North Americans probably should eat less meat and reduce air travel when possible. Incessant corporate branding and marketing almost certainly has a toxic impact on our psyches, encouraging us to buy new products instead of repairing and sharing existing stuff. But until regular people have the ability to collectively decide what goods are produced and services delivered, they shouldn’t be held responsible for “choices” forced upon them.

Over half of the energy used in Canada was consumed by the industrial sector – the likes of mines, factories, and fossil fuel extraction.

Most people would likely choose to take sleek, quiet, and reliable public transit over spending hours each day sitting in gridlock, alone in their cars. But the former is simply not an option in many North American cities, which have experienced years of neglected transit and accumulated (usually racist) infrastructure underinvestment.

Same goes for living close to work, or residing in energy-efficient homes, or purchasing goods with less plastic packaging, or travelling across the country in high-speed rail rather than discount airlines. Decades of political decisions and reductions in regulations have resulted in those options being an impossibility except for the most affluent in society, who then get to moralize to the rest of us about how Inherently Good it is to not live in the suburbs or shop at big-box stores.

The solution, as with everything, is political.

We must abandon the language and sentiment of overconsumption and organize our cities and towns through unions, co-ops, community centres, and activist organizations – with a primary focus on improving conditions and services in low-income communities of colour.

The solution, as with everything, is political.

This means building energy-efficient and affordable housing, ensuring that people can work and relax in the areas in which they live, while using low-cost public transit to get elsewhere.

We already know that massive amounts of energy can be generated via low-carbon sources: wind, solar, geothermal, and more. By agitating for publicly owned electricity production by such means, our communities can significantly reduce the amount of carbon pollution emitted for basic functions such as transportation, building heating, air conditioning, and the industry we deem as socially beneficial.

The so-called problem of consumption is a convenient distraction from the hard work that needs to be done to overhaul the exploitative and destructive systems that currently concentrate a vast majority of the wealth and power in the hands of the very few. Such greed won’t dissipate by individual moralizing or using fewer plastic bags.

It’ll take radical collective action – and an impassioned desire for all of us to be able to consume more of the things that are sustainable, just, and fulfilling.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and author of the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm.

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