Beyond the Shopping Cart: Messaging Consumption

On the Oprah Winfrey Show two years ago, Al Gore’s upbeat message was that we’re not helpless in the fight against global warming.  The camera rolls as he pushes a shopping cart down the aisles of a giant Lowe’s Home Improvement Store "to show you the five things you can buy that will help solve the climate crisis…and save you a few bucks!" The fabulous five are compact fluorescent light bulbs, outdoor solar lighting, programmable thermostats, air filters, and a blanket to insulate an electric hot water heater.  

The inconvenient truth is that while it’s a good thing to buy energy-saving products, it’s hardly going to solve the climate crisis.  Green consumer capitalism just won’t cut it. The Bali climate conference in December called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by the year 2020. Meeting this target would require dramatic changes in economic and energy policy both in the U.S. and internationally.


That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about the role of individual consumption. This is a consumer society, after all. You have to start where people are, not where you think they should be.  In working for climate justice, activists have an opportunity to frame consumption in ways that move beyond Al Gore’s shopping cart to call into question some fundamental tenets of capitalism, the ‘American way of life’, and the militarism that undergirds them.  After eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime, people are hungry for loftier values, as evidenced by the remarkable response to Obama’s candidacy. 


Here are ten ways we could frame consumption simply and effectively:    


1. There are different kinds of consumption. There’s a big difference between luxury consumption, predicated on economic disparities and wasteful resource use, and necessary consumption that meets basic human needs.   


2. Every little bit counts.   Even though we can’t solve the climate crisis by turning off our lights, middle and upper-class people in the U.S. could make significant individual reductions in carbon emissions by shifting to energy-saving technologies and curbing luxury consumption.


3. Money doesn’t buy you love. It’s time to value quality of life over quantity of things.  If measured by the number of antidepressants consumed every day, the U.S. is the unhappiest place on earth.  A saner lifestyle — of less consumption but more security, including universal access to health care — would be embraced by many people. Ditto for smaller, cluster housing units but more green space; fewer cars but more high-speed trains; less money but more time. 


4. We are what we eat.  We need to look critically not only at how much we eat, but where our food comes from.  Agribusiness and factory farming of livestock are huge energy guzzlers. We need to support small-farmer, sustainable agriculture at home and abroad. And the food tastes better to boot.


5. The personal can become political.  Individual action on consumption can help to create a more politically aware and active citizenry, committed to fighting for public policies to reduce carbon emissions at the local, state, regional and national levels.    


6. Don’t forget the people who need to consume more, not less. The ability to buy green products and curtail excess consumption is a class privilege.  There are many who lack this privilege in the Global North as well as the Global South. More than one in ten U.S. households are experiencing or at the risk of hunger.


7. Just climate policies provide an opportunity to raise the incomes and consumption of poor people.  To date, most cap-and-trade carbon schemes have provided windfall profits to the energy giants. The Lieberman-Warner bill now before Congress would give most of the carbon permits free-of-charge to large energy corporations, a great skyway robbery.  Instead, carbon permits should be auctioned and the money should flow into public coffers to help poor people offset higher energy costs and to support universal access to health care, education and employment, including the development of green jobs.


8. Don’t be afraid of Indian and Chinese consumers.  The Global North is mainly responsible for the climate crisis.  The Global South has the right to develop.  We should support green technology transfer that helps countries like India and China leap-frog past the heavy use of fossil fuels in the industrialization process.


9. Capitalist ideology and overconsumption go hand-in-hand. The imperatives of endless economic growth and the exploitation of human and natural resources for private profit got us into this mess in the first place.  We’re not going to get out of it until we put our heads and hearts together and figure out new ways of doing business.


10. Don’t forget the military. The U.S. military is the biggest single overconsumer on the planet. It uses as much oil as the entire population of Sweden (see http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/5097). In a vicious cycle, the Pentagon burns massive amounts of oil to secure access to more oil in the Middle East.  Its war-making machine also devours our tax dollars. The war in Iraq has already cost over half a trillion dollars.  We can devote those resources to far better things. Al Gore got it wrong. What we really need to fight global warming is something money can’t buy: peace.



Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.  Her latest book is the political thriller, Deadly Election, about what happens when an imperial presidency crosses the line between democracy and dictatorship. See http://www.BetsyHartmann.com.   

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