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Consumer Choices in the Age of Climate Change


I wanted to point you all to this Aaron Regunberg piece in The New Republic. I should state that I know him slightly. He almost won the lieutenant governor position in Rhode Island in 2018 as a Bernieite and that would have been fascinating because now he would be governor when Gina Raimondo left to become Secretary of Commerce. Well, he lost another race in 2020 and his rapid political rise came to a halt and he’s since gone to law school. So he’s a fascinating person and still a potential leader in regional politics.

The article itself is a fascinating discussion of personal choices in an age of climate change. On the biggest crisis in global history, one in which we are failing miserably and regardless of what you want to say about the Manchin-Schumer deal, it’s hardly going to make any difference if it does at all, what do we do as individual people?

If you’re rolling your eyes at my list of personal lifestyle changes, I don’t blame you: They are exactly the kinds of individual consumer choices that, for many years, I didn’t put much stock in. As a state legislator, I fought to pass new renewable energy programs, and as an activist and organizer, I participated in campaigns to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure in my community. And that political activity felt like enough. Indeed, any climate “action” outside of politics seemed like a distraction. Addressing the climate crisis requires sweeping policy changes to restructure our economy, not atomized lifestyle decisions. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in a Guardian column last year, “Individual acts of thrift and abstinence won’t get us the huge distance we need to go in this decade. We need to exit the age of fossil fuels, reinvent our energy landscape, rethink how we do almost everything.… The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good.”

This warning takes on added significance when you consider the ways the fossil fuel industry has systematically used narratives about personal consumption to redirect blame for climate change away from oil and gas companies and onto everyday consumers. For example, it’s now common knowledge that British Petroleum coined the term “carbon footprint” in 2004 in order to promote the idea that individuals like you and me—rather than fossil fuel majors like BP—are responsible for the climate crisis.

Needless to say, that’s bullshit. But in rejecting that premise earlier in my life, I did something of an overcorrection. If Big Oil wanted me to blame myself instead of the fossil fuel industry, and our neoliberal order wanted me to focus on my role as a consumer rather than as a citizen, then the right response, I decided, was not to worry about lifestyle choices at all.I now think that was a mistake. There’s no reason that individual lifestyle choices and collective action need to be mutually exclusive, or even slightly conflicting. Indeed, in my own life I’ve realized that seeing friends, neighbors, and strangers make sustainable life choices often helps me find some of the hope I need to keep engaging in climate fights.

Watching solar panels spring up on a roof I pass every day, or waving hello to a fellow bike commuter, can be a lovely—and sometimes necessary—day-to-day reminder that there are people in every part of my community who care about this crisis (and who could be recruited to engage more actively in the climate movement, if they haven’t yet taken that step). The possibility that my own solar installation or bike use or vegan dish at a friend’s potluck could lend this same boost to others is, I think, worth real consideration.

On the day I fly to a conference in Norway, it’s something to think about. But I have trouble going down the vegan/biking/never traveling road for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard to see it mattering one iota in the end. Second, the Green New Deal needs to be predicated on gigantic government action. Right before the pandemic, I was at a GND conference at Harvard. I was speaking late in the day, so I got to hear all sorts of things first. And I got frustrated. So much of it was about forming community gardens and working with corporations on small projects and the like. And when I finally spoke, I chucked most of my talk and said, look people, none of this is going to change the world. The point of the New Deal was gigantic government planning. Were there problems with that giant government planning? Of course. But we can acknowledge that and move on with better knowledge and attempts to engage in the sorts of actions that really will make a difference. If the Manchin/Schumer deal means anything, it’s that we can get something like change through the political system and hopefully we can build on this for more wide-ranging climate legislation.

One other thing–over the years I’ve taught environmental history, which somehow is about 15 now. I’ve noticed a fleeing toward students being more interested in these little individual issues such as their food or very small community projects, instead of wilderness or larger political changes. This I fully believe to be related to the hopelessness of change in the modern world. The bigger issues just seem so intractable. So controlling what goes in your body or the choices you make on the road is one way to live with that. And I understand that. It’s possible Regunberg is correct and I am wrong. The reality is more likely in between. After all, he knows very well the limitations of his own actions. It is a conundrum without easy answers, or at least easy answers that can be actively applied to something, as are so many of our current political issues.

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