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July 11, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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“Think Globally, Act Locally.” Well, Maybe

I don’t recall the last time that burning tyres seemed like a good idea, but thanks to the environmentalist movement, I know that I should refrain from doing so.

Environmentalists are full of such useful eco-tips. I’m advised to get rid of the plastic bags, buy energy-efficient lightbulbs, turn off the lights, grow vegetables, walk places, car-pool places, don’t go places, buy local, buy organic, stop buying things, eat my greens and listen to the goddamn birds.
Broadly, these suggestions reflect the heart of environmentalism: that global problems represent the accumulation of individual human practices. Consequently, if we each make changes to our individual lifestyles, we can together reduce humanity’s ecological impact; “Think globally, act locally” is an oft-bandied maxim that is particularly telling of this approach.

On the face of it, these suggestions are inoffensive. It’s hardly debatable that overconsumption of resources is bad ecologically, nor that curtailing consumption would be good ecologically. But the argument that to achieve these shared goals, we should each reduce our consumption on an individual level, is flawed. The truth is, many such lifestyle changes are pretty pointless.

According to Washington scholars P. Wapner and J. Willoughby, the immense versatility of money means that reducing personal consumption simply changes where the “engines of consumption” operate. Thus, calls for individual lifestyle change are valid only under such highly restrictive conditions that—for most people, most of the time—they are ecologically irrelevant.

Before the virtuous fires of your conscience overheat, let me explain.

Let’s suppose that I want to reduce my ecological impact. I cut back on spending because I want to prevent my money contributing to environmental degradation. Unless I decide to bury it ’neath the shed with the neighbour’s cat, less spending means more savings, and the simplest way for me to save is to let my money accrue interest in the bank.

However, savings do not just sit in banks. Banks make profit through the practice of fractional reserve banking; they lend more money than they hold in deposits. This means that every dollar I choose not to spend gives the bank more resources for loans or to fund investment projects. By expanding business or supporting large consumer expenditure, these loans inevitably involve resource use and waste: they have material consequences. Banks also make advances to government to pay off debt, which may lead to a boost in economic production, indirectly placing stress on the environment. The result is no different if I transfer the money into stocks and bonds.

This, Wapner and Willoughby argue, is the great irony of environmentalism. Despite the fact that my efforts to protect the environment involved commendable stoicism that made me feel real good, it merely shifted the locale of the environmental harm.

Further, the potential for impact of individual lifestyle change is tenuous. No matter how well-meaning one is, there are invariably others who—due to their ignorance, arrogance or apathy—do not care. Unfortunately, this is no small group: just under 50% of US citizens, for example, do not believe that climate change is linked to human behaviour.

Considering that one individual has no real influence over the actions of others, it seems irrational that we believe in the efficacy of these measures to directly reduce ecological impact. Compounded by the fungibility of money, it is clear that there are wiser approaches than individual lifestyle change.
Such a conclusion throws the impetus of many student-based environmental initiatives into doubt. “Think globally, act locally” now seems a little inept. If the structure of the global economy operates in such a way as to redirect money back into material production, then one flatmate’s power-saving campaign seems hopeless from the outset.

There are further complications. Our way of life in the capitalist, liberal democracy of New Zealand affords us the liberty to access and utilise a vast array of goods in whatever way we determine useful—but environmental action necessitates a restriction of this freedom. What point is there in advocating measures that curtail our personal freedom, if those measures do not work?

It is all terribly sad. It is important, however, that we consider what all this does not mean. It does not mean that we should give up. Fuck no. Despite chronic skeptics’ griping, 98% of climate scientists do agree that humanity contributes to climate change. There is consensus: we must act now.
But we must be cautious in our choice of appropriate action. We have a lot to lose so it is vital that we discern what is and is not effective, then pursue with vigour. If the issues are fundamentally structural, then the response must be of a similar weight. But what does this mean for students? If changes must be made at the top, then what of my lowly efforts? Is it all about public policy? What about the symbolic nature of my actions?

Although individual lifestyle change may be ecologically futile, the informed actions of individuals can still make a difference. Here is what those must be.
Firstly, we must stop grouping all environmental issues into one big, green, biodegradable basket. The environmentalist movement conveys a hodgepodge package of asceticism, ‘ethical consumerism’, mysticism and political activism. Even though it is reasonably clear that the practical, spiritual and nonsensical aspects are separable, many people do not do this, and the confusing mix of demands comes across as a command to change everything. People feel forced to jump to one end of the spectrum. They must become life-committed environmentalists, or they are frightened into apathy, and a populace of apathetic citizens is a horrific prospect. Fuck apathy.

It is therefore important that we stop presenting the ecological argument for environmentalist action concurrently with the self-fulfilment argument for simple living. They are different issues. The prospect of spiritual liberation through the rejection of material comforts may be a compelling reason for some to adopt environmental practices, but the fact is, such change is a little too much for the content majority—and the conflated package turns them off the entire environmental endeavour.

People are more than just economic actors. Though individual lifestyle change, if understood in moral terms, can act as an expression of compassion towards future generations (despite being directly ecologically ineffectual), as students, we have a more important duty. We must devote our energy toward concerted political advocacy. We must lobby our politicians for changes to public policy, as changes at this level can temper with the market sufficiently to give our individual actions actual substance.

We must look at the appropriate role of New Zealand in the international arena. But, as four million people of nearly seven billion, New Zealand is a small country. We are not one of the big polluters. Therefore, we must look outward. We must lobby our politicians to exert pressure internationally for global, structural changes. We should demand that a greater proportion of state expenditure on environmental causes is directed away from home, to where it can make a real difference. Just as we must lobby our politicians, they must lobby on the international stage. Then, we can distort the actual magnitude of our presence; we can have a greater impact than that caused solely through a reduction of our ecological footprint. These are not new ideas, however such an environmental politics must not be just one part of the effort, but the most urgent and defining element.

Maybe this all seems somewhat meek. If one takes issue with the premise that individual lifestyle change has little, if any, ecological impact then, please, prove me wrong. What is essential is that we talk critically about these things, that we challenge the orthodoxy, and that we do what is most effective—not that which only provides us with a sense of self-righteousness. We cannot let urgency misdirect us to a murky path littered with conflated demands that produces sub-optimal results. As students, we have a moral duty to distinguish between truth and delusion, to apply reason to a task made difficult by uncertainty and fear. We must encourage the mobilisation of a politics that demands change at the top. With a clear path discerned, we must act rationally and we must act swiftly. Burning tyres is stupid. Don’t do it.

This article contained reference to The Irony of Environmentalism: The Ecological Futility but Political Necessity of Lifestyle Change by P. Wapner and J. Willoughby.

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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