Consumers, Crappy Anthropology, & Climate Change
I heard this guy on the radio the other day. He’s deeply concerned about climate change and damages happening to our environment, so he started a ecological-design consumer products company that recently won a competition Starbucks had for designing a better cup (the current ones have a plastic liner that makes recycling super tough).
The interviewer asked the guy, who clearly is very motivated to see further damage to nature averted, what his opinion was on government interventions and regulations to help solve these problems: No, he said, I don’t believe in those. I believe the consumer will drive change.
I almost drove off the road.
Of course this idea is everywhere, and if our homeboy here’s been through basically any business school he’s had that notion drilled into his head.
And of course, consumers can and do drive change all the time—simply through shifting cultural tastes and through more activist approaches like boycotts.
But here’s my main problem with our friend’s claim:
A consumer is not a different person than a citizen.
The person who buys is not a separate demographic of humanity than the person who votes. Humans get to do all sorts of things, and, thanks to the multilayered societies we’ve build, we have multiple tools at our disposal for making change.
It’s exactly this sort of logic that exposes the uncomfortable relationship between capitalism (particularly in it’s most Milton Freedman-esque expressions) and democracy. Capitalists thought mongers, in their disdain for public-sector incursion on the scope of their profit-making empires, use all sort of techniques to limit democratic means of shaping our communities that don’t use “the market.” From unlimited corporate funding of elections, unchecked corporate lobbyist influence and access from DC to state and city government offices, to ideological inceptions like this “consumers will make change” trope, they wage an all fronts war against democracy.
Pragmatically, there’s a second glaring issue here: the idea that consumption is the road to ending climate change is absolute insanity. Consumption is the very root cause of the harm being done to creation. If our anthropology reduces human community to individual consumers, there is no hope. Reduce precedes reuse and recycle for several obvious reasons—if we start by consuming less in the first place, that means less extraction from the environment, less emission through industrial processing and production, less ecological burdens through transportation, and less disposal of goods on the back-end (even compostables and recyclables take up land-space and burn energy to process).
Economists like Kate Raworth are working hard to spread a different anthropological vision of humanity, and to ensure that different human image works its way back into the math, models, goals, and systems of the economy. The neoclassical image our radio guy referenced is often call “homo economicus,” and he is a spent and hollow image of the real deal person-in-community-in-creation.
Raworth has a great, quick video to help shift the conversation:
Christian tradition offers a whole host of resources to extend our understanding of the person, and the roles we can play in participating in the mission of God.
The imago Dei springs first to mind. Formed by God to be like God, we are called not to be consumer but co-creators.
God consistently leads his people to find themselves not through individualism, but through communitarianism: by forming a people to live well together in interdependent relationships, whether it be Israel under the law or the Church under the Spirit.
And we look to Jesus for the apotheosis of human nature, when God, through the incarnation, demonstrated how to be human. If humans are to be like Jesus, we are to live simply and for others. We are to be those who heal others wounds (tell me, how can I heal someone’s wounds through consumption?). We are to be those who share what we have, and discover the multiplying power of living out of the abundance of God’s generosity instead of the scarcity of our anxious souls. We are to be those who nonviolently struggle for a gospel that is good news to the poor, that sets captives and the oppressed free, that restores sight to the blind, and proclaims the jubilee year of God’s favor. This is good vocation that asks us to bring the whole of our human being.