Your Personal Consumption Choices Can’t Save the Planet: We Have to Confront Capitalism

To stave off disaster, we must transform the economic system driving climate change.

Kate Aronoff July 18, 2017

A power plant billows smoke in Iceland. (Yvette Cardozo/Getty)

New York Mag­a­zines lat­est 7,000-word cov­er sto­ry about cli­mate change freaked a lot of peo­ple out. Like the real­i­ty of cli­mate change itself, the sto­ry is depress­ing. Author David Wal­lace-Wells — col­lat­ing sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic papers and inter­views with cli­mate sci­en­tists — metic­u­lous­ly lays out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of melt­ing ice caps releas­ing lit­er­al plagues, our air becom­ing unbreath­able and geopol­i­tics devolv­ing into end­less war. 

That we’re all somehow failing to do our part is a convenient narrative to the small minority of people who are actually responsible for fueling this crisis.

The response among cli­mate wonks took a few dif­fer­ent forms. Cli­mate writer and mete­o­rol­o­gist Eric Holthaus point­ed out a series of fac­tu­al errors in the piece on Twit­ter, and The Atlantics Robin­son Mey­er detailed sev­er­al points where Wal­lace-Wells’ nar­ra­tive diverges from accept­ed sci­ence. Sci­en­tists like Michael Mann argued on Face­book that the arti­cle leaned too heav­i­ly on dooms­day sce­nar­ios, bar­rag­ing read­ers with scenes that Wal­lace-Wells him­self states are unlike­ly to come to pass. The evi­dence that cli­mate change is a seri­ous chal­lenge that we must tack­le now is very clear,” Mann wrote in a Wash­ing­ton Post response to the sto­ry. There is no need to over­state it, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it feeds a par­a­lyz­ing nar­ra­tive of doom and hopelessness.”

The debate about the arti­cle has also orbit­ed around the ques­tion of whether fear is an effec­tive moti­vat­ing fac­tor in get­ting peo­ple to try to change things, which — how­ev­er you feel about the piece — clear­ly needs to hap­pen. Envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist Jon Foley said no, and called Wal­lace-Wells’ sto­ry­telling deeply irre­spon­si­ble.” David Roberts at Vox coun­ters that fear shouldn’t be avoid­ed: It may be that there are social dynam­ics that require some fear and paral­y­sis before a col­lec­tive break­through. At the very least, it seems exces­sive to draw a pat fear nev­er works’ conclusion.”

Less dis­cussed in the after­shock of New York Mag­a­zine sto­ry has been exact­ly what kind of response fear pro­vokes, whether in indi­vid­ual peo­ple or the insti­tu­tions they belong to. 

Like almost every­thing else, our reac­tions to fear — cli­mate-based or oth­er­wise — have been con­di­tioned by 40-plus years of neolib­er­al­ism. Short­ly after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, George W. Bush advised a reel­ing U.S. pub­lic to get down to Dis­ney World.” As the reces­sion loomed, he told us to keep shop­ping. That pro­posed solu­tions to the cli­mate cri­sis have tak­en a sim­i­lar tone isn’t sur­pris­ing. For years, main­stream cli­mate activism cen­tered around chang­ing light­bulbs and rid­ing more bikes. Shop green, in oth­er words, and the earth will follow.

That’s start­ed to shift, thanks to move­ments like Occu­py Wall Street and hard-fought bat­tles by indige­nous activists, joined by a younger and more mil­i­tant gen­er­a­tion of envi­ron­men­tal­ists. Push­es to stop the Key­stone XL and Dako­ta Access pipelines, and to divest from the banks that finance them and the com­pa­nies that build them, have inject­ed envi­ron­men­tal­ism with an anti-cor­po­rate spir­it, pred­i­cat­ed on col­lec­tive action.

But a main­stream grav­i­ta­tion toward indi­vid­ual solu­tions remains. After the New York Mag­a­zine piece was pub­lished, a bat­tery of arti­cles — some new, some old — start­ed crop­ping up on social media feeds detail­ing things you can do about the cli­mate cri­sis. Many of the new sto­ries talked up a recent­ly-released Envi­ron­men­tal Research Let­ters study about the four most effec­tive things” indi­vid­u­als can do about cli­mate change: stop eat­ing meat, avoid air trav­el, don’t have a car and — at the top of the list — have few­er chil­dren, or none at all. 

Con­sump­tion choic­es do mat­ter. They just hap­pen to mat­ter a lot more if you’re in the one per­cent, and espe­cial­ly the top 0.01 per­cent. If some earnest Gen X cli­mate activist can­cels the fam­i­ly vaca­tion to see the grand­par­ents over car­bon guilt, the Earth is not going to give a damn,” Roberts writes, What will mat­ter is if a busi­ness exec­u­tive decides to fly back and forth from New York to Lon­don once a week instead of twice, or once a month instead of week­ly. And it will only mat­ter if all the wealthy trav­el­ers make the same deci­sion, con­sis­tent­ly, over time.”

The obvi­ous and most direct approach to address­ing the role of indi­vid­ual choic­es in cli­mate change is to tax the con­sump­tive choic­es of the wealthy,” he adds. For now, and for the fore­see­able future, car­bon emis­sions rise with wealth. Redis­trib­ut­ing wealth down the income scale…reduces lifestyle emissions.” 

If you’re not rich, Roberts con­cludes, the best thing you can do for the plan­et is get togeth­er with oth­er peo­ple and try and change pol­i­cy and elect peo­ple to office who aren’t in bed with the fos­sil fuel indus­try, among oth­er things. Think­ing about lifestyle choic­es real­ly only makes sense, then, if you add an under­stand­ing of class pol­i­tics into the mix.

To real­ly get this, it’s impor­tant to state just how skewed respon­si­bil­i­ty for the cli­mate cri­sis — like most oth­er soci­etal crises — real­ly is. A Car­bon Majors Report recent­ly found that just 100 com­pa­nies have been respon­si­ble for some 71 per­cent of glob­al emis­sions since 1988. 71 per­cent.

This stands at odds with the sto­ry we nor­mal­ly hear about cli­mate change. Warm­ing is a civ­i­liza­tion-wide prob­lem, we’re told, and the result of a pub­lic obses­sion with con­sump­tion: a col­lec­tive fail­ure. The reme­dies float­ed to this fail­ure are indi­vid­ual, whether recy­cling more or dri­ving and pro­cre­at­ing less. A glob­al­ized ver­sion of this tale — that’s gained cur­ren­cy among many on the green left — envi­sions a mas­sive scale-down in our col­lec­tive pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion called de-growth,” where­by the sac­ri­fice is shared but so too are the gains of a more sus­tain­able ecosys­tem: aus­ter­i­ty for the com­mon good. 

As the Car­bon Majors Report under­scores, though, we arrived at the place we are now thanks to the actions of a small and incred­i­bly wealthy sub­stra­tum of the pop­u­la­tion and their con­trol over the economy’s modes of pro­duc­tion, which define how we live and work and con­sume. Many peo­ple world­wide and in our own coun­try sim­ply don’t con­sume enough for their lifestyle choic­es to mat­ter. As cli­mate sci­en­tist Kevin Ander­son puts it, By the time the poor have suf­fi­cient income to use lots of ener­gy, the tran­si­tion to a low-car­bon ener­gy sys­tem will need to have been com­plet­ed.” That we’re all some­how fail­ing to do our part is a con­ve­nient nar­ra­tive to the small minor­i­ty of peo­ple who are actu­al­ly respon­si­ble for fuel­ing this cri­sis. Cli­mate change is already hit­ting the peo­ple who’ve con­tributed least to it, and whose liv­ing stan­dards and lev­els of con­sump­tion should increase rather than decrease. 

Eco-con­sumerism may be able to expi­ate your guilt. But it’s only mass move­ments that have the pow­er to alter the tra­jec­to­ry of the cli­mate cri­sis,” Guardian writer Mar­tin Lukacs argued this week. This requires of us first a res­olute men­tal break from the spell cast by neolib­er­al­ism: to stop think­ing like individuals.”

As Lukacs also points out, the pow­ers at be — and the four-decade ide­o­log­i­cal project that put them there — won’t make this task easy. Col­lec­tive action is going to have to do a lot of work over the next sev­er­al years. One obvi­ous chal­lenge is get­ting peo­ple to respond to the threat of cli­mate change togeth­er, in num­bers large enough to make the prob­lem unavoid­able for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. That in itself is a plen­ty steep task con­sid­er­ing the par­ty line of the rul­ing elite is straight-up denial. The one thing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can estab­lish­ments seem to agree on is the need to keep bud­gets small and gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion to a minimum.

On the oth­er hand, it is vital to ensure that the way states respond to this cri­sis doesn’t leave the peo­ple already most vul­ner­a­ble to it worse-off. 

Glob­al North gov­ern­ments don’t have a ter­ri­bly good track record of respond­ing to crises from the per­spec­tive of human rights and gen­er­al well­be­ing. Whether in cre­at­ing crises or cap­i­tal­iz­ing on them, gov­ern­ments’ respons­es to fear leave a lot to be desired. As Bush was telling fear-strick­en Amer­i­cans to go out and shop the pain away post-Sep­tem­ber 11, mem­bers of his admin­is­tra­tion were also engi­neer­ing the war on ter­ror’ and one of the most aggres­sive scale-backs of civ­il lib­er­ties since the Red Scare. Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na cleared the way for mas­sive dis­place­ment and a whole­sale pri­va­ti­za­tion of the city’s school sys­tem, but not before the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty and Louisiana gov­er­nor autho­rized Black­wa­ter to shoot and imprison New Orleans res­i­dents at will. A post-storm cul­ture of impuni­ty com­bined with heavy police and mil­i­tary pres­ence, as well as armed vig­i­lantes, turned many parts of the major­i­ty-black city into a death trap for African Amer­i­cans. A white man named Paul Glee­son was caught on tape brag­ging to New Orleans police about hav­ing shot thir­ty-eight peo­ple he sus­pect­ed of being loot­ers, telling the offi­cers that he had giv­en the bod­ies to the Coast Guard.

As was the case after Sep­tem­ber 11 and Kat­ri­na, the peo­ple worst-hit by these kinds of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters are most harmed by gov­ern­ment fail­ures in the after­math. This dynam­ic dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impacts peo­ple of col­or and the work­ing class. What’s to make us think that an open­ly xeno­pho­bic Trump gov­ern­ment will yield results that are any dif­fer­ent? Gin­ning up a fear-based pol­i­tics in the con­text of an ascen­dant far-right is a recipe for an entire­ly dif­fer­ent kind of disaster.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia soci­ol­o­gist Daniel Aldana Cohen wrote of Wal­lace-Wells’ piece that, The actu­al­ly real­is­tic dan­ger zone is a com­bi­na­tion of too lit­tle decar­boniza­tion, too late, in the con­text of hard­en­ing inequal­i­ties of class, race, and gen­der — in short, eco-apartheid. Those bru­tal inequal­i­ties, and the bul­lets that main­tain them— not mol­e­cules of methane — are what will kill people.”

On top of a stark­er social cli­mate, Aldana Cohen notes that seem­ing­ly quick-fix, tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions (spray­ing Snow­piercer-style chem­i­cals into the sky, for instance) become all the more like­ly the clos­er we get to 4 degrees.

Is it true that vir­tu­al­ly every­one gross­ly under­states the dan­gers posed by cli­mate change? Yes. But is the gravest threat pure run­away cli­mate change? No: it’s too lit­tle, too late, plus race and class war, plus exper­i­ments with the plan­et,” he con­tin­ues. It’s the dan­ger, essen­tial­ly, of a vicious right-wing minor­i­ty impos­ing the priv­i­lege of the afflu­ent few over every­one else.”

In short, we need to do much more than cap emis­sions to make sure the next cen­tu­ry is marked by any­thing oth­er than increas­ing­ly cru­el and mil­i­ta­rized bor­ders and cities. Deal­ing humane­ly with the kind of warm­ing already locked-in and avoid­ing warm­ing even worse than that will mean a whole­sale trans­for­ma­tion of a polit­i­cal econ­o­my that includes every­thing from fos­sil fuels’ dom­i­nance to mass incar­cer­a­tion. Where move­ments can make inroads on some of these fronts, it’s hard to upend neoliberalism’s dom­i­nance with­out tak­ing state power.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to get it, of course. But the physics on cli­mate change mean that many of the require a mul­ti-racial, low-car­bon, pop­ulist plat­form aimed at pro­vid­ing jobs and basic eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty for all Amer­i­cans. The Labour Party’s sur­pris­ing­ly pop­u­lar man­i­festo in the Unit­ed King­dom — the one that brought them with­in strik­ing dis­tance of con­trol­ling Par­lia­ment — con­tained calls to bring ener­gy util­i­ties under pub­lic own­er­ship and ban frack­ing. Con­tra the aus­ter­i­ty pol­i­tics of Repub­li­cans and greens alike, a coun­ter­part here could pro­pose a pro­gram for full employ­ment or redis­trib­ut­ing funds from pol­luters to the com­mu­ni­ties they’ve poi­soned or even nation­al­iz­ing elec­tric util­i­ties. The lives of one per­centers may get worse as we scale back emis­sions, but the 99 percent’s can get a lot better.

Fram­ing cli­mate change in terms of fear — as Wallace-Wells’s piece does, unfor­tu­nate­ly — means wag­ing the fight against it on the right’s terms, ones that will like­ly come up per­ilous­ly short giv­en the scale of trans­for­ma­tion required. The Left can win by pre­sent­ing a vision for a fair­er world. And it might well be the best shot humanity’s got.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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