Climate justice, ethics and action

| 5th February 2019
anti-capitalist placard
Challenging individual consumerism must occur in synchrony with critiquing broader capitalist systems.


There’s been a push amongst environmental commentators to eliminate everyday individuals from the ‘who’s causing climate change’ narrative. Environmental commentators have, in part, justified this reframing by claiming that a focus on individuals perpetuates neoliberal reasoning and, in turn, neoliberal policymaking. 

Neoliberals, who espouse individualism, typically believe that the attitudes and behaviours of individuals solve or break big problems. For example, in the UK the condition of the chronically unemployed is attributed to a poor attitude or work ethic, rather than the socio-economic structures that disempower and exclude certain social groups from the workplace. To remedy this, the state employs psycho-coercive behavioural and attitudinal correction programmes, intending to ‘fix’ unemployable characteristics.

In light of the neoliberal policy trend, many anti-capitalist environmental intellectuals reactively expunged ‘individual behaviour’ from the narratives they used to explain and, in turn, combat climate change. Instead, focus has shifted to big producers and corporations - corporations that grew fat off imperial capitalism, and who now rely on internationally liberalised markets to exploit socio-economically disempowered communities and countries.

False dichotomy

The accumulation of capital in the hands of a very few investors and financiers has massively skewed the trajectory of our socio-economic system, with a minority deciding what our industrial future will look like (e.g. big oil's investment in plastic factories).  

Certainly there’s truth in these narratives. For example, the behaviour of energy producers and corporations, particularly Oil Majors, is uniquely destructive. They directly accelerate climate change through resource depletion, irresponsible waste management, catastrophic oil and gas spills, and the perpetuation of GHG emissions.

These corporations also leverage their positions as major players within energy oligopolies - who have access to technology, funds, political lobbies, research and expertise - to disproportionately influence the course of technological and policy developments. In relation to the energy sector, systemic overhaul is what we need. 

However, by exclusively focusing on the structural causes of climate change, we establish a false dichotomy between individual action and system change (the system being white-supremacist patriarchal neo-colonial capitalism, henceforth referred to as the capitalist system). This is flawed.

Economic systems

Firstly, “individual behaviour” is a Strawman. It is not just the behaviour of an individual that is being challenged when consumption choices are highlighted as problematic. Rather, archetypal materialistic and consumerist attitudes are in the firing line. It is these attitudes that undergird, perpetuate, sanitise and celebrate oppressive consumer behaviour. It is these attitudes that are being challenged.

Secondly and most importantly, the anti-capitalist environmental commentator uses a linear causal model to understand a (mostly) circular economic system. Simplistically, individuals collectively form the ‘consumer’ group, whilst corporations, industries, and oil-oriented governments collectively form the ‘producer’ group.

These two groups are intimately integrated and responsive to one another, such that they form a circular chain of causality. In this chain production induces consumption induces production induces consumption etc. 

In claiming that exclusively challenging the productive capitalist system will solve climate change issues, these commentators are implying that consumption has no bearing on the rate or nature of production.

This describes a linear causal model, where production induces consumption and zero consumer feedback occurs. This linear model defies basic macroeconomic principles and common sense, and fails to realise that the consumer group is not only produced by the capitalist system, but reproduces it through consumptive behaviours (and revolutionary inertia). 

Consumptive asymmetry

Thirdly, there lies a distinct asymmetry in both the consumption choices and in the rates of consumption between the Global North and the Global South. Comparatively, consumption in the Global North massively outstrips the Global South in terms of the production of emissions, land usage, waste creation and the devastation of ecosystems.

What’s more, the effects of this production/consumption disproportionately affect those in the Global South. As such, the consumptive behaviours of the Global North should be a primary target of those who want to tackle climate injustice (a state of affairs where the countries who have most caused climate change feel it the least).

When we include consumer behaviour in our understanding of the capitalist system’s relationship to climate change, addressing consumptive asymmetry by reducing and reshaping our own consumption becomes central in tackling climate injustice. 

For example, meat and dairy are predominately consumed by the richest countries and regions (China, Russia, the US, Europe, Brazil). Yet, animal agriculture causes 14.5 percent of global emissions, is the main driver of deforestation (cattle and soy production are the top two causes of deforestation with 90+ percent of soy being used in animal agriculture), and 60 percent of total biodiversity loss has occurred due to meat-based diets.

What’s more, cattle ranching and soy farming in Brazil spreads violence and causes the displacement of indigenous forest communities.  

Consciousness raising 

Fourthly, the freedom to consume environmentally harmful object X at the rate and price-point that we do has been/is enabled by neo-colonial trade channels. Trade channels that were and are being dug by powerful imperialist countries and international corporations that use extreme violence to secure natural resources, and that exert soft power to leverage cheap labour and lax regulation.

‘Entitlement’ to consume cheap products is predicated on exploitative politico-economic relations and, as the majority of this activity disproportionately impacts financially poor people of colour who live in industrialising economies, it reveals a racist, classist and Eurocentric attitude to social justice issues.

Lastly, challenging consumptive attitudes by highlighting the environmental and social impact of a productive sector, allows consumers to understand their consumption choices in terms of real-world impact.

If carried out persistently and by trusted public and private actors, the process of engaging with consumers on supply chains will raise eco-consciousness (in the way that European communist artists of the early 1900s raised class-consciousness by producing work that vividly depicted class relations). 

Raising the eco-consciousness of the public raises the eco-consciousness of the electorate, ensuring that the scrapping or capping of environmental policy incurs some political capital cost. A lack of eco-consciousness has previously allowed the Conservative party to obliterate UK environmental policy.

Political capital

To illustrate this, notice that the Tories are currently floating a raft of environmentally friendly policies and proposals through Parliament and into the gaze of the media. This is not because they have suddenly become environmentally conscious, but because they need to recruit the typically environmentally conscious young and woman voters (following the embarrassing June 2017 elections).

Raising the eco-consciousness of every social group will imbibe environmental issues with the political capital to become as pertinent a political issue as the economy (note: economic health is dependant upon a healthy environment). 

If the rate and nature of consumption remains unchanged, it’s hard to see that the structural nature of the productive sphere could be radically transformed. An unsustainable and oppressive consumer culture that fetishizes entertainment and status electronics, celebrates the consumption of meat and dairy, has a casual attitude to the use of disposable products, and normalises frequent flying does not resist capitalist structures. It supports them both financially and ideologically.

We need to accept that our collective current mode of existence is also contributing to the destruction of the planet and the violation of communities who live in production centres. 

By excluding the consumer group from our understanding of the capitalist system, we gain an incomplete understanding of the economic system and climate change, and, as such, incomplete solutions. 

We need to rebalance our narratives in a way that recognises the unabated behaviour of the consumer group as integral to the perpetuation of the capitalist system. In this sense, we may understand the consumer group as part of the problem. As such, challenging the productive capitalist system will need to occur in synchrony with the challenging of archetypal materialist and consumerist attitudes. 

This Author 

Samuel Hayward is the project officer of climate change campaigns at ShareAction. Image: Gary Denham, Flickr

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