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Personal Lifestyle Changes Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis


Electric cars, carpooling, energy efficient appliances, carbon credits, shopping at Whole Foods, high-efficiency lightbulbs (turned off when you leave the room of course): this is a list of things that won’t do sh*t to stop the climate crisis. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that these are some of the favourite prescriptions from ‘green’ capitalists and liberal Al Gore types who want to solve the climate crisis with more of what caused it in the first place — capitalism.

What these suggestions betray is a belief that the climate crisis can be solved via changes in the consumption habits of individuals (often cloaked in the familiar language of personal responsibility vs. profligacy, moral restraint vs. immoral gluttony etc) rather than by fundamentally altering the production processes inherent to colonial capitalism. If the notion that ‘individual responsibility’ is the root of the problem sounds familiar to you, it should; It’s basically the right-wing argument against things like welfare and decommoditized social services like healthcare or housing.

The reason that a notion like this can’t be the foundation for a left-environmental movement is obvious and twofold:

  1. it is inherently anti-poor and anti-worker, and
  2. it won’t actually make any difference in the material reality of the climate crisis.

A Losing Strategy

Making personal consumption the focus of the climate movement is a great way to alienate the very working class that is crucial to forming a strong left in this country. Capitalists love when we shame one another for our choices of consumption, it boosts ‘green’ brands’ profits and drives a wedge between environmentalists and the working class, two of the biggest potential threats to the capitalist system.

Imagine the single mother working two jobs with no free time — does it make sense to shame her for buying her kids food at Burger King (a major culprit of deforestation) when she is already so short of free time?

Imagine a blue-collar worker working construction or landscaping— does it make sense to shame her for driving a gas-guzzling truck required for her job, for her paycheck?

Imagine a miner or lumber-employee already working for low wages in an extremely exploitative industry — does it make sense to demonize them or blame them for their employer’s initiatives?

That such positions are no basis for a leftist politic should be obvious. They represent the worst normalization of the capitalist system, believing that the basic structures of capitalist production can’t possibly be altered in any way, and that the only recourse is for consumers (even poor ones) to alter their ‘amoral’ or ‘profligate’ habits. It’s a ‘green’ version of the welfare queen myth popularized by Reagan, that imagines that the poor have all the same options available to them as the richer classes and places blame for their position squarely on their own shoulders while ignoring systemic causes of poverty.

It Won’t Work

If the systematic dismissal of the working class weren’t enough to turn one against personal lifestyle environmentalism, there’s also the fact that it won’t work. An article in The Guardian on Monday emphasized a fact already well known among the green left, that 100 corporations are themselves responsible for 71% of fossil fuel emissions. So it goes without saying that without restructuring the global economy, we can only ever be working to mitigate 29% of global emissions — not enough to make a material difference in the climate crisis. This is the case across almost every source of environmental degradation we have data for. Municipal (that is, personal) usage accounts for only:

  • 10% of total water use
  • 3% of waste generation, and
  • 25% of energy use

Which is to say that even if we alienate every member of the poor and working class by insisting on personal responsibility for environmental issues, we’ll only be affecting a tiny percentage of the environmental crisis, while leaving the oppressive and exploitative (of people and the Earth) colonial capitalist system intact.

Therefore, the goal of the left should be to join with the working class to end exploitation both of people and the Earth. When people are put in charge of their own well-being and economic security, they tend to not undermine the natural community upon which we all rely. Only an alienation from nature, a severing of humankind from its extended body, as Marx identified it, could create the current system where industry sees the more-than-human world as only resources to be exploited, instead of a community to which we belong.

The Slow Burning Fuse

The piece was originally published on Medium.

Written by Nathaniel Owen

Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @thugznkisses. He also writes on Medium.

Nathaniel is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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Personal Lifestyle Changes Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis