You Can’t Save the Planet by Yourself

Buying more environmentally friendly products gives us the sense that we’re doing something about climate crisis. But the call to shop more ethically is having a pitiful effect on CO2 emissions — and may even stop us from questioning the priorities our economy is organized around.

A man rides a Bird shared dockless electric scooter while transporting three others along Venice Beach on August 13, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The climate crisis is probably the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, and its scope and urgency are constantly increasing. It is clear that we have to reduce our CO2 emissions and that this is primarily the responsibility of the Global North.

From this, it’s easy to conclude that “we in the West” have to change our lifestyles in order to achieve a fairer and more sustainable world. It’s no surprise, then, that ethical (or “sustainable”) consumerism has become an increasingly widespread response to the looming disaster. Indeed, a 2018 study conducted in the UK and United States revealed that 70 percent of people believe that individual consumers are most responsible for protecting the environment.

Sustainable consumerism is attractive for producers and consumers alike — after all, it offers the possibility to continue consuming while also caring for others and the environment. People are given the apparent option of concretely “doing something” against the abstract and overwhelming danger of the climate crisis — without the need for radical change.

Within the terms of our current economic system, this does seem to make sense. Sustainable consumerism combines the economic necessity of growth and profit with the values of ecological and social sustainability. The claim — or illusion — is that all these things can prosper in harmony. Claudia Langer, the founder of sustainable-lifestyle website, calls this “movement” the “most peaceful revolution of all time,” claiming that consumers’ choices are today steering what path companies take.

But do we really? This seems highly doubtful, not least if we consider that only 100 companies have been responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Are we, consumers, deciding the course of things? Or are we just being gaslighted by big corporations and the “sustainable development” movement? It would seem their solutions — and their interests — are not the same as those of the social majority.

Unequal Effects

In thinking about the impact humans have on the environment, it is important to note that the harmful effects of climate crisis are not the same for everyone — rather, they are closely interlinked with economic inequality and other structural power imbalances. Not only does climate crisis represent a threat to humanity in general, but it enhances and reproduces existing inequalities. One major reason for this is that the origins of the climate crisis and its consequences are inextricably linked to our economic system, capitalism, as well as to societal power imbalances such as patriarchy and racism.

The inequality in per-capita carbon emissions was highlighted in a 2015 Oxfam study that compared people’s consumption emissions according to their income and wealth. The results are striking in two ways. First, they show that the richest 10 percent are responsible for almost 50 percent of global CO2 emissions, whereas the poorest 50 percent together emit only 10 percent. Second, the study demonstrates that the group of people emitting the least CO2 is also the group suffering the most from the effects of climate change. The poorest 50 percent of people live predominantly in the most vulnerable countries, facing, for example, higher risks of floods, droughts, and heat waves. Such inequalities also apply within countries.

Hurricane Katrina was a case in point — poor people, elderly people, and people of color were hit hardest and had the least resources to cope with the disaster. Moreover, especially in the Global South, women are far more at risk than men, which is partly due to the gender-based work distribution. The workload for women increases as they are more dependent on rain-fed agriculture and mostly responsible for fetching water, which is more inaccessible when sources dry up. Women disproportionately bear the societal task of caring for the elderly and sick and thus face higher risks in poor health-care situations.

These polarized inequalities appear even more drastic when we consider who is benefiting from the development of economic interests in fossil fuels. From 2010 to 2015, the number of people on the Forbes billionaires list who had direct interests in increasing fossil fuel production rose from fifty-four to eighty-eight, while their combined wealth grew from $200 billion to $300 billion. This small elite is directly profiting from climate-damaging actions and policies and clearly has no interest in changing the status quo.

Tempting but Ineffective

If not everyone is equally endangered by climate disaster, we may well ask what implications this has in terms of the most effective means to avert it. One problem in answering this question is the failure of existing attempts at structural change. For a textbook example of this, we need only look at the United Nations’ Paris Agreement. Here, 196 countries pledged to keep the temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels below 2°C, or preferably even at 1.5°C, and to reach zero net emissions by 2050. The target is clear, the necessary measures are known, and the tools are ready — but action is missing. Governments are not acting in accordance with the agreement they signed — and the United States withdrew from it entirely.

This failure at the institutional level has clearly brought individual approaches like sustainable consumerism more into focus. Various tools have been developed to help us in this quest. Numerous websites allow us each to assess our carbon footprints, and we are constantly offered tips on how to reduce our personal CO2 emissions, from eating less meat and dairy products, using cars less, flying less, turning off the lights, or buying organic and fair-trade products. Not only do such changes seem only reasonable, given the looming crisis, but sustainable consumerism gives people the feeling of being in power: they decide what they buy and therefore what is being produced. They punish unethical companies by boycotting them — or reward their ethical counterparts with “buycotting.” But it is also worth questioning whether this approach really gives people power — and, most important, whether it can deal with the vast scale of global emissions and other environmental impacts.

There are three major fields of sustainable consumerism: fair-trade products, organic agriculture, and carbon offsetting. The fair-trade movement is primarily targeted at fostering “fair” working conditions and wages and not at reducing environmental impacts — a 2009 review study on the impact of fair trade found no literature that included a methodical environmental assessment at all.

This contrasts with organic agriculture, which more clearly promotes the image of being environmentally superior to conventional production. However, a 2017 review study by Michael Clark and David Tilman showed that, contrary to many people’s beliefs, organic food is not more environmentally friendly than conventional products. Depending on the type of product, organic or conventional production may be superior from this perspective — overall, the differences are more or less canceled out. At the aggregate level, organic production uses less energy, but it emits similar amounts of greenhouse gases, requires higher land use, and causes more eutrophication — the overloading of surface waters by nitrogen and phosphorus due to fertilizer use.

Rather than focus on buying organic or conventional products, it would be more effective to consider the tremendous differences among the types of food we consume. The land use per gram of protein in beef production is fifty times higher than for rice, and the carbon emissions are ten times higher. What you eat is much more important than how it is produced.

Voluntary carbon offsetting has also been growing very rapidly. The idea here is to donate money to projects aimed at compensating CO2 emissions — for instance, by planting trees in some other part of the world. This may sound reasonable, yet in almost all cases it takes a neocolonial turn. With carbon offsetting, companies and those with the necessary financial resources can simply “export” their responsibilities to cut emissions to mostly poorer countries — thus allowing them to avoid the need for radical changes back home.

Nevertheless, these approaches are appealing to many people. Michael Bilharz, an expert in ecology and economics, surveyed the CO2 emissions and energy usage of twenty-four sustainable consumers who belonged to the demographic that marketing experts call LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). They were all members of BUND Naturschutz, the Bavarian branch of a German organization for the protection of the environment, and had each taken various measures to cut their CO2 emissions, such as buying organic and regionally sourced products, avoiding leaving electrical appliances on standby, and purchasing green energy. On average, the individuals estimated their personal carbon footprint to be about 30 percent lower than the German average. However, the results of the study belied this self-assessment — on the contrary, their environmental impacts were within or above the national average.

This discrepancy shows two things. First, the focus of what is generally considered a sustainable lifestyle is wrong. People get the feeling that they are really “doing something” by making small changes in their daily routines or by replacing household appliances with slightly more efficient ones. But they disregard possible rebound effects and may even be incentivized to consume more, whether by using the money they saved on energy bills in some other environmentally damaging way, or else because they feel morally permitted to consume more because of previous sustainable behavior (“self-licensing”).

Second, Bilharz’s study showed that the biggest factor in determining people’s CO2 emissions is their income and wealth — indeed, environmentally concerned people are no exception here. People with more money generally also consume and travel more and live in bigger houses or apartments.

Bilharz’s book Going Big with Big Matters, written with Katharina Schmitt, instead calls for a focus on decisions with a more important effect, like lowering the size of our personal living spaces, changing our choice of heating system and thermal insulation, drastically reducing our use of airplanes, driving highly efficient cars, participating in car-sharing programs, and investing in renewable energies.

We can illustrate in numbers the relative importance of these changes: according to a 2017 review study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, comprehensive recycling saves 0.2 tCO2e and upgrading household light bulbs 0.1 tCO2e per year. This is basically negligible when compared to the 0.8 tCO2e that can be saved per year by following a plant-based diet or reducing driving by car. An average car emits 190 gCO2/mi and an average SUV 216 gCO2/mi, which results in an annual 2.56 tCO2e and 2.91 tCO2e respectively, when driving 13,467 miles per year (the average driving distance of Americans in 2018). But if we need bigger steps, why are these small choices so appealing, and why has sustainable consumerism become so widely promoted? Is all this simply a means for companies to outsource their moral responsibility?

Being Good People

As mentioned above, sustainable consumption can create the feeling of being in power. But first and foremost, it is a question of comfort and aesthetics. According to a 2009 trend study published by the Otto Group, a German mail order and e-commerce company, today’s consumers are motivated to buy fair-trade and organic products mostly for individual reasons rather than out of broad social solidarity. Ethical behavior is perceived as an individual comfort factor, while aesthetics, indulgence, and self-improvement have edged out ideals prevalent in the environmental movement of the 1980s such as forgoing consumption and concerted action to change the world. It is no surprise, then, that Dr Johannes Merck, the Otto Group’s corporate responsibility manager, calls for prominent “role models” who can turn ethical consumption into a status symbol. He insists that ethical conduct is driven by the desire to consume.

However, sustainable consumerism also has a more starkly regressive aspect, for it constitutes a shift in responsibility away from production and business and toward the consumer. Saving the planet becomes a matter of personal choices rather than general social regulations. Indeed, while ethical consumerism distinguishes between morally good and bad products, it does not stop there. Today, more and more people define themselves — and their superiority over others — in terms of the products they buy. The choice for or against certain products can influence whether you are abstractly seen as a good or a bad person and can concretely spur self-judgment or condemnation of others. Indeed, not everybody can afford to participate in the ethical consumerism “movement.” Not everybody has the time, money, or energy to engage in ethical consumption. Up till 1562, a follower of the Catholic Church could buy himself relief from punishment for his sins by buying “letters of indulgence” — cash for the Church, exchanged for redemption of the soul. Today, if the moral responsibility for products’ environmental impact is displaced from business onto individual consumers, people with low incomes often simply can’t afford a good conscience.

For businesses themselves, the reasons to promote sustainable products are economic rather than ethical. The market for such products has high growth potential, and an “authentic” green image gives companies a competitive advantage — according to the “Green” Winners study from the consulting agency A.T. Kearney, sustainable companies performed 10–15 percent better during the financial crisis than conventional ones. Ethical consumerism is supposed to increase the meaning of consumption itself, by combining it with immaterial values such as autonomy, community, honesty, justice, and nature. One can draw parallels with a particular marketing coup of Edward Bernays, often considered the founder of public relations. In 1929, he advertised cigarettes for women as “torches of freedom.” He paid women to smoke their “torches of freedom” at the Easter Parade in New York; in those times it was still a social taboo for women to smoke in public. The campaign equated cigarettes with women’s emancipation to overcome this social taboo, and thereby used the feminist struggle to access a new market.

Ethical consumerism is the example par excellence of “green capitalism.” It doesn’t just deflect criticisms against capitalism’s own destructive consequences, but even incorporates them, and thus appears to be part of the solution for the problems capitalism has itself created. Yet the market-oriented measures put forward by green capitalism are undemocratic as well as apolitical. They turn environmental worthiness into a question of income and consumption in a way that stabilizes the status quo. Big corporations can keep, if not even increase, their current power while being exempted from their liabilities through the market, which in turn burdens the individual with moral responsibility and deprives her of actual political power. Green capitalism stabilizes our current system by offering people a “solution” within it — a “solution” that does not question, but rather promotes, the profit motive at its very core.

Collective Action

The climate crisis is the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century. The science on what we need to do to combat global warming has been clear for decades: we need to stay under the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) goal of a no more than 1.5°C global temperature rise and to reduce global net emissions to zero by 2050. Yet political leaders have not been acting fast enough, or not at all, instead trusting in “the market.” But we cannot wait. The climate crisis is a highly political issue that concerns all of us. Solving this problem requires real political change — and collective action to achieve it.

Many people who care about the climate crisis and actively try to fight against it may already be aware of the issues raised in this article. However, most of the conversations we have with friends and family about what “you and I” can concretely do still revolve primarily around individual rather than collective action. Such discussions will likely influence our way of thinking about and acting within this world, and this obviously also applies to conversations about possible solutions to the climate crisis. So why don’t we talk more about protesting together, why don’t we talk more about organizing as a group, and why don’t we talk more about means of transformation that proved effective in the past — mass social movements and economic strikes?

Over the past months, a global climate movement has been emerging that has significant momentum and is still growing. Many of the newly formed groups are inspired by the actions of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has been striking from school each Friday since August 2018. On March 15, a global school and university strike for climate action took place in more than two thousand cities with more than 1.5 million (according to organizers) people joining in. Another more generalized strike action began on September 20.

The movement has been under attack from various conservative forces, but has also received a great deal of interest and solidarity. Thousands of scientists have signed open letters in solidarity, and many trade unions are actively supporting the movement, including by urging teachers to support students. Some educators are even announcing their own participation in the climate strikes.

This is the most promising development in years — maybe even decades — in the fight against climate crisis. If this dynamic continues, it is possible that youth-led climate strikes will join forces with teachers’ strikes for better working conditions, uniting environmental demands with the fight for public services. Such is the path to more fundamental change — a liberation from the capitalist economic model and the danger it poses to our lives and our environment. As the climate strikes show, you don’t have to save the planet all by yourself.