A Socialist Case for Curbing Consumption To Stop Climate Change

Combating extractive capitalism is crucial. So is taking the bus.

Dayton Martindale January 30, 2018

Decomposition of landfill waste is the United States’ third-largest source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.(GARY FRIEDMAN/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

This is a response to Your Car­bon Foot­print Doesn’t Mat­ter (Unless You’re Michael Bloomberg)” by Kate Aronoff.

If we’re serious about systemic changes, we have to start building popular support—and shifting cultural norms—now.

I am gid­dy at the prospect of ban­ning yachts and pri­vate jets. But once the mil­lion­aires and the bil­lion­aires have been dri­ven from their ski resorts and Michael Bloomberg’s heli­copters have been sold for spare parts, we’ll find that net car­bon emis­sions still aren’t at zero. Part of the rea­son is, in fact, the red meat on your plate.”

For starters, while solar and wind may elim­i­nate car­bon emis­sions in many indus­tries, there’s no viable com­mer­cial- scale tech­nol­o­gy ready to bring about, say, a low-car­bon cat­tle ranch or air­plane. At least some of the struc­tur­al changes we need to fight cli­mate change — a cross-coun­try net­work of renew­able-pow­ered rail to replace com­mer­cial air­planes, or ramped-up recy­cling and reuse efforts to avoid the emis­sions asso­ci­at­ed with man­u­fac­tur­ing and land­fill waste — will have to be geared toward reduc­ing, or at least alter­ing, consumption.

Of course, Kate is cor­rect that indi­vid­ual lifestyle changes alone won’t solve the prob­lem. A lit­tle less car­bon in the atmos­phere and a lit­tle less plas­tic in the ocean are good things, but a slight­ly-less-bad cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is still a cat­a­stro­phe. Even if every In These Times read­er went veg­an and sold their car, the fos­sil fuel-dri­ven econ­o­my would keep on chug­ging. Trans­form­ing the entire extrac­tive sys­tem will take pol­i­cy and tech­nol­o­gy shifts, from refor­esta­tion to end­ing oil sub­si­dies to start­ing pro­duce co-ops in food deserts as an alter­na­tive to cheap, emis­sions-heavy meat.

But talk­ing about per­son­al con­sump­tion” is not a mis­take. The oft-avoid­ed real­i­ty is that mit­i­gat­ing cat­a­clysmic cli­mate change will, in devel­oped coun­tries, require seri­ous changes in consumption.

We are in a race against time to scale up renew­ables to meet ener­gy demand with­out fos­sil fuels. The low­er the total demand, the faster we fin­ish the race. The Left’s cur­rent plan for imple­ment­ing these far-reach­ing changes seems to be: Hide the truth for polit­i­cal rea­sons and then try to leg­is­late mas­sive con­sump­tion changes if and when there is oppor­tu­ni­ty. This is a recipe for fail­ure and resentment.

If we’re seri­ous about sys­temic changes, we have to start build­ing pop­u­lar sup­port — and shift­ing cul­tur­al norms — now. This means being hon­est about what a zero-car­bon future will like­ly entail.

Alter­ing one’s own con­sump­tion habits can begin this process in many ways: set­ting an exam­ple to friends and fam­i­ly, start­ing con­ver­sa­tions at par­ties or work, mak­ing our­selves more con­scious of the con­nec­tion between econ­o­my and ecol­o­gy, help­ing us get spe­cif­ic about the sort of world we want to bring about, and demon­strat­ing that lifestyle changes like com­post­ing, tak­ing the bus, buy­ing used fur­ni­ture or order­ing a veg­gie burg­er aren’t all that oner­ous — and, in fact, can be kind of nice.

Because to win, we must reject the fram­ing of anti-con­sumerism as aus­ter­i­ty.” Cur­rent high con­sump­tion lev­els are not inevitable, and a soci­ety that con­sumed less could also work less. There’s noth­ing aus­tere about hav­ing more time for leisure, hob­bies and relationships.

Kate’s sta­tis­tics do much to exon­er­ate the glob­al poor and she cor­rect­ly points out that half of glob­al lifestyle emis­sions come from the rich­est 10 per­cent by income — but that group includes every­one who makes more than about $13,700 annu­al­ly, accord­ing to num­bers from the U.K. aid group CARE Inter­na­tion­al. Every­one over $32,400 is in the glob­al 1%. So most Amer­i­cans are con­tribut­ing more than their fair share of car­bon to the cli­mate crisis.

Of course, pover­ty in Amer­i­ca is real; noth­ing I’ve said here is meant to keep those with­out, with­out. Kate is right that shel­ter, health­care and edu­ca­tion should be uni­ver­sal­ly pro­vi­sioned, and this sort of plat­form can make a suc­cess­ful (and green) pol­i­tics. But do we real­ly need quite so many plas­tic toys, con­sumer elec­tron­ics and cheap shirts? It’s past time to think about what a cli­mate-friend­ly soci­ety looks like, and what we can do without.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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