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.