Environmentalism Can't Succeed Without Good Citizens and Good Consumers

Aug 7, 2012Nick Santos

Individual action alone won't solve our environmental problems, but neither will giving up on responsible consumer habits.

"Story of Stuff" creator Annie Leonard has posted a new video, titled "The Story of Change," in which she argues that it's not responsible consumers but good citizens – those who vote, participate, take action, and generally show up – who create environmental change. The video is quite good, but I disagree that one is better than the other. In fact, for us to get the changes we need, we’d do best to vote with both our dollars and our ballots. Leonard says as much, but the video and her recent piece in the New York Times’"Room for Debate" series send a mixed message that discourages individual-level action. The argument environmentalists should be making loud and clear is that we must have good individual consumption habits and civic participation if we hope to succeed.

The central argument reflected in the video and by all the Times debaters is that individual actions are a tiny piece of the puzzle and that consumers who take individual action are more likely to feel an “illusion of progress” and think they have done their part without having any significant impact on the larger environmental problems we face. These are important considerations, but sending the message to consumers that their contributions “don’t add up” is dangerous both for our environmental impacts and for the viability of our civil participation. Consumers who take individual action are invested in the movement – an advantage that should not be overlooked. In addition, the environmental problems we face are ultimately linked to consumption, and we must address consumption in order to adequately fix them.

The first problem, as any climate change organizer can tell you, is that getting people to make the leap from individual economic and social impacts to grassroots organizing is no simple task. Leonard is right that making a connection to a larger movement is incredibly important, but the crux of organizing remains the individual – individuals who are so convinced of the problem that they take time out to show up and participate. To get to that stage, individual action is critical – it keeps us focused on the problem and raises awareness of the solution. Still, we can and should still tie these personal efforts to effective campaigns and political action. For an example of this done right, look no further than 350.org, whose organizational voice and message, as seen in the staging site and resources it provides for local organizers, strengthen the movement's foundation and inspire people to engage their community on the ground.

The second issue is cultural.  We have a serious consumption problem that legislation cannot eradicate, even while it can significantly reduce the damage of each bit of consumption. In reality, we have to buy less, not just buy smarter, if we want to do our part. So while taking action and demanding better government regulation tackles many of the problems associated with producing and disposing of products, environmentalists and consumers in general need to go much further in addressing the consumption problem itself.

This is where individual consumer purchasing adds up. In addition to reducing impacts, making real shifts in corporate behavior, and setting examples for other conscious consumers, individuals who make responsible purchasing decisions literally and figuratively invest in the sustainability movement. And we need that if we expect people to show up, vote, talk to their neighbors, or otherwise take civic action. Enough of us already profess to support issues like climate change, but when we don’t feel like it’s a part of our lives, it can drop off the radar. Participating in individual purchasing keeps these issues front and center in the public consciousness.

Some of these consumers are at risk of considering their purchasing to be their entire contribution to the movement, as the debaters contend. But if they do, then that’s our failing as environmentalists in not making the appropriate connection between civic and economic action. Leonard is trying to correct these problems, and I applaud her for it, but it won’t work if consumers get the impression that they should stop their personal investment in sustainability, as Leonard’s message often suggests. We need to help these two types of critical action work together if we want either of them to have a chance of success.

Nick Santos is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow working on climate change education. He runs Environmental Consumer, a nonprofit, and works with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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