Citizen-Consciousness vs. Consumer-Consciousness: A Paradigm Shift

Anna Haynes (of NCFocus) put me on to this problem, the problem of how most of us substitute individual consumer choice for collective citizen action, then imagine that we’ve done all we can do to address the great environmental issues of our day.

Anna referred me to this excellent essay by Sharon Begley.

On the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, Let’s … Go Shopping!
Buying green and changing personal behavior won’t save the planet.


“Shopping for the planet is just one manifestation of how green activism has gone seriously off course as it has spread a gospel of personal change rather than collective action. Of the Nature Conservancy’s five recommendations for Earth Day, four—figure out your carbon footprint here, time your shower, go for a walk (!), and find a farmers’ market—involve individual behavior.

” … As my colleague Ian Yarett documents in his progress report on the environment, every example of major environmental progress—reducing acid rain, improving air quality, restoring the ozone layer—has been the result of national legislation or a global treaty. We reduced acid rain by restricting industry’s sulfur emissions, not by all going out and sprinkling bicarb on sensitive forests and lakes. Leaded gasoline was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996, not by everyone choosing to buy cars that run on unleaded. Ozone-chomping CFCs were banned by the 1987 Montreal Protocol, not by everyone deciding to forgo spray cans and air conditioning.”

There’s a connection, I think, between the (mostly right-wing) assault on government, on the idea of government as a force for good, and the erosion of our belief in ourselves as citizens. Advertising — political and product advertising — encourages us to think of ourselves primarily as consumers, and not primarily as citizens.

If we became effective citizens, might we become less dependable consumers? Does our political/commercial system have a vested interest in disempowering us as citizens?

Some of the best writing (and thinking) being done today often appears in the beautiful magazine, Orion. And today in Orion I spotted this essay by Sandra Steingraber on this very subject of individual (consumer) versus collective (citizen) action.

Steingraber speaks of “well-informed futility.” Take a look.

Household Tips from Warrior Mom!
On the desire to change lightbulbs instead of paradigms


“A decade ago, I published a book about the links between chemical exposures and cancer. The research for it required four years, two postdoctoral fellowships, and fluency with Freedom of Information Act requests. I attended workshops on cluster analysis and taught myself molecular epidemiology. I made field trips to cancer laboratories, studied tumor patterns among wildlife populations, and rode a cable down a three-hundred-foot shaft to look at groundwater. When the writing was all done, I helped prepare the publicity materials, which, among other things, claimed that my book was the first to bring together data on toxic releases with data from U.S. cancer registries. No one had attempted that before. It was a big book.

“One of my first stops on the author tour was a television talk show that taped in Hollywood. Dropping by for the requisite preinterview, I was greeted in the studio by a woman in a diminutive orange dress who said her name was—I’m not making this up—Tangerine. Tangerine instructed me to fill out seven index cards and bring them to the interview the next day. On each one, I was to jot down a single “cancer prevention tip.” These seven tips would appear as bullet points below my talking head. Tangerine encouraged me to think hard about each tip.

“Back at the hotel, I thought hard. Finally, I came up with my first tip: IDENTIFY CORPORATE POLLUTERS IN YOUR COMMUNITY.

“My second tip was something like, CONFRONT THEM.

“The next day, Tangerine freaked out.”


“After one discomfiting exchange on a college campus, a man from the audience approached me with a suggestion: Read Gerhart Wiebe, a psychologist who wrote, in 1973, that information about a problem over which people feel little sense of personal agency gives rise to “well-informed futility.” The more knowledgeable we are about such a problem, the more we are filled with paralyzing futility. Futility, in turn, forestalls action. Eventually, we turn away from the knowledge itself; no one likes to feel intolerably guilty, helpless, or afraid.”

Read the full article here.

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11 Responses to “Citizen-Consciousness vs. Consumer-Consciousness: A Paradigm Shift”
  1. gregzaller says:

    “On the desire to change lightbulbs instead of paradigms”
    The paradigm we need and the world needs is well beyond what mainstream environmentalist thinking seems to realize. This new paradigm will embrace that we are all part of the world and in this together. There will never be any effective long range change until those that understand lead all others to participate in a new society that respects nature and each other. The only way to reach this new reality is one step at a time. It will begin with us first learning to dialogue with each other because out of this a new vision for living will sprout and grow.

  2. Anna Haynes says:

    Thank you Don for the (ironic) “tips from warrior mom” link, and to Greg for contributing.

    “when people believed they could avoid harm through acts of individual self-protection, they felt less urgency about eliminating those threats by pushing for environmental reform. This observation, as it turns out, is backed by data. In his 2007 book, Shopping Our Way to Safety, sociologist Andrew Szasz demonstrates how the desire for personal security actually undermines the goal of environmental protection. ”

    “It’s really hard to leave the bomb shelter. It’s even harder to leave a beautifully appointed bomb shelter. But staying in there ultimately generates more futility than standing unsheltered in the pitiless storm and admitting, like blind King Lear, that, yes, truly, we have taken too little care of this.”

    Greg Zaller, a Q re your comment (“There will never be any effective long range change until those that understand lead all others to participate…[first] learning to dialogue with each other because out of this a new vision for living will sprout and grow.”) –
    Can you provide _evidence_ that this new vision will spread & be effective without the need for government action, or is this just your deeply held belief?

    I think we need to move beyond just reciting our beliefs.
    “Even with an 80% participation rate, the strategy of “living poor” isn’t working.”

  3. Anna Haynes says:

    re my response to GregZ above, I should clarify why I kind of brushed the comment off – the trouble with hashing out points-and-counterpoints in blog comments is that since it’s a transitory (attention-wise), stateless medium, without a large audience, the outcome is that very little progress gets made in understanding, in exchange for the amount of effort invested to marshal one’s points & compose the comment. On the other hand, if we could present this divergence, say, on the radio, working from a pre-assembled argument tree (or, for those who prefer another name, a “point-counterpoint-counter-counterpoint tree” or reasoning tree, or ?) – which helps avert a flawed “slow-thinking-on-ones-feet” production – the increase in human understanding can be much greater, & it’s very much worth devoting time to.

    so, Greg, if you’re still out there, would you like to work with me on this?

  4. gregzaller says:

    YES, Anna. Effective deliberation is the essential first step to solving all of the world’s problems.

  5. Anna Haynes says:

    OK, this ball is in my court. (and will likely sit there, untouched, for a while…) Thanks Greg.

  6. Anna Haynes says:

    Moving the ball to GregZ’s court:

    On reflection, I think the problem with how to make something constructive out of Greg’s &my divergent views is that if all we’re doing is going mano-a-mano with opinions, no light is shed for the reader (except about what opinions people hold). The opinions would need to be backed with evidence, for it to be informative.

    Greg, do you agree? If you disagree, please tell me – what other enlightenment would the exchange provide, for the reader?

    Or if you do agree, then, to return to our particular divergent views, do you _have_ evidence that progress in solving the world’s environmental problems has effectively been made, in the past, by mobilization that doesn’t involve environmental regulation?
    (or am I not framing the Q right, & if so, how *should* it be framed, in a way such that you can answer that yes, you have evidence & can provide it)

  7. gregzaller says:

    Hi Anna, I wish there was a box to check to get email updates on a particular blog like Pelline has instead of needing to look back periodically..

    Too bad we aren’t having a cup of coffee together. I’m not so sure our views diverge very much.

    My son is taking a philosophy class along with that being his major. On learning this my first reaction was having a little disappointment based a judgment that philosophers lived in ivory towers. After that I happened to read a semi-philosophy book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed and it not only informed some of my work but also described the concept of Praxis or informed practice, which I agree with. Then in response to voicing my ivory tower prejudice to the instructor he agreed He explained that he taught how to make arguments and understand the essence of arguments to bring about change. We all need this type of training.

    People are arguing past each other at every level today and making defective arguments and missing the point of effective arguments. On environmental matters I believe we need to be able to listen to each other and have intelligent discussions to build the agreement and desire to have effective regulation. I also believe that today’s regulations are completely and grossly inadequate. It seems to me that the place to begin for we the people to govern ourselves correctly is with better education.

  8. gregzaller says:

    I wonder, Anna, if we agree on the best way to converse in blogs. I believe that if information is shared in a respectful manner people will end up sharing an inclusive point of view. In the beginning they might have very different points of views but because the conversation is not threatening people will naturally tend to adopt compatible points of view. Do you agree? It seems to me that you are suggesting something more like a debate.

  9. Anna Haynes says:

    Hello Greg. I agree with you on these generalities. (“People are arguing past each other…we need to be able to listen to each other and have intelligent discussions to build the agreement and desire to have effective regulation” &.better education will help)

    Yes, it would be good to meet&talk, again, particularly if we use the meeting to build something from our exchange, that can be used to inform others (and to aid us&them in recalling what points-counterpoints we’ve already made); with the proviso that what we build is a sketch, done in pencil, subject to revision when more info comes in.)
    On respectful discussion yielding agreement:

    > I believe that if information is shared in a respectful manner …

    Yes, sharing information in a respectful manner is the ideal. (Hopefully those who lapse, learn from their lapses)

    > …[then] people will end up sharing an inclusive point of view. …

    I’m assuming by “share an inclusive point of view” you don’t just mean “lowest common denominator of values-based agreement” (L.C.D. would be views like “in Vietnam we failed to do what was right”, or “we need to build a good future for our children” or “freedom is good”); rather, minds are changed, & the participants come into enough agreement to move forward more specifically.

    > …[i.e.] because the conversation is not threatening people will naturally tend to adopt compatible points of view

    Is this just your opinion? Please give examples of online venues in which respectful discussion alone ( without additional techniques) has been _sufficient_ to get the mass of participants (who were formerly of disparate views) to reach agreement on a contentious topic, agreement that involves aligning their views,& some changing theirs.

    I think you might reach collective agreement on non-contentious topics but to reach agreement on contentious ones, more is needed.
    (Note, there may be other goals for which respectful discussion alone is helpful & constructive, but in reaching collective agreement, it’s susceptible to being gamed.)

    No, I’m not suggesting a debate (in debates the goal is winning, not informing) – I’m suggesting trying a structured conversation, that (hopefully) is not as susceptible to being gamed as blog-comments are. Maybe I’m wrong, and it is; but the way to find out is to try it. (It could take multiple trials, too; I can envision that if the wrong interests set one up, it wouldn’t work well.)

    As you realize, blog-comments take a *lot* of time to compose, so if there might be a way to achieve the same degree of benefit with less effort & duplication, IMO we should try to find it.

    Yes, let’s do coffee & do it constructively, starting a reasoning tree from your assertion that “because the conversation is not threatening people will naturally tend to adopt compatible points of view” (I’ll be asking you to provide online example(s) of where respectful discussion, alone, has yielded agreement).

    I’ll email you to set it up.

    (And readers, if you see reasons why a reasoning tree likely *wouldn’t* work, or other drawbacks/pitfalls, please speak up.)

  10. Anna Haynes says:

    minor edit re the above:

    s/gamed/gamed or skewed/

  11. Anna Haynes says:

    p.s. I do agree with GregZ that a reader or commenter who’s in a thoughful frame of mind (a frame they won’t be in, if they’ve been attacked) will be more open to considering alternative viewpoints than they would be, if they were on the defensive. No question about this – the question is, whether we should expect this openness alone, to be sufficient.

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