Towards the end of last month my toilet paper brand reminds me to celebrate Plastic Free July:
Of course, another easy way to cut down your plastic is to top up your toilet paper!
Who gives a crap.
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During Plastic Free July, masses of acquaintances on social media and the wider internet take to reducing their plastic intake, swapping their glad-wrap for beeswax, and their coffee cup for a Keepcup. They sweep proudly past the hoards at the self-serve checkout, a reusable bag triumphantly on display. They document this all on social media and urge us to consider turtles and swear off straws. Turtles are important, yes, but individual responsibility in environmentalism is a con. We can’t buy our way out of this.
As a vegetarian, worm farmer, cyclist, bees-wax-wrapper, herb-gardener etc., I want to feel like these actions have a purpose. But really, what place do these actions have in terms of climate change mitigation, and broader environmentalism?
The environmental actions that these campaigns lead us to normally involve purchasing something. Buy a Keepcup, buy a water bottle, buy a reusable bag. Or as my toilet paper company reminded me, buy some more toilet paper! That will save the planet! Our individual environmental responses are integrally tied to a consumerist problem, propelled by “green” marketing and social trends.
Go on to the Keepcup website, you can either be “part of the problem, or part of the solution”. I know what side I’d rather be on.
This kind of binary discourse of right and wrong reveals the way that environmental action has been represented and constructed in Australia. Individual action, responsibility and guilt boil right down to our Australian social values as “team players”. It entitles us to judge those who don’t take up these actions. I catch myself unsympathetically eyeballing people at cafes for not using a Keepcup. But really, whose values is this action representing and whom is it excluding?
Environmentalism as a concept has frequently been criticized for its whiteness. Really, any “solution” that relies on individual consumer responsibility is contributing to inequality in environmentalism. Measuring individuals as equal in terms of responsibility does not adequately represent environmental pasts, presents and futures, in terms of who has exploited, who continues to reap the rewards, and who will be most vulnerable to environmental hazards in the future. It pools us together in an “environmental crisis” and asks every one of us to do their “fair share”. But environmental issues are not fair.
Consumerist environmentalism is so appealing to white middle-class Australians because it relies on very little change to how we live our lives. Shows like the War on Waste are attractive, as it positions us as green warriors who fight the waste problem one coffee cup at a time. It affirms that we can continue our “do-gooding” behavior by simply changing brands, whilst still maintaining order. Frankly, this is at odds with the societal upheaval that may be required to confront our environmental truths.
This is not to discount the efforts in these every day changes, it is not that you should stop. Instead, you should stop patting yourself on the back.
It doesn’t end here. These actions rely on a system of individual consumers with equal capacity for change. It is not near enough, or fair, to guilt all Australians into using a Keepcup and wash our hands of environmental issues. This is a capitalist system where all people are not equal, we have different capacities. As individuals, we cannot be responsible for real change, but as a whole we are.
Councils and government must be the ones to respond to environmental issues and Australian citizens must demand it from them. Maintaining individual consumer responsibility is convenient for governments, as our economy is built heavily on environmental degradation. Individual environmental actions can only go so far if the collective interest still lies in ecological deterioration. The buck must be turned to them to see real change. If you care about the environment, perhaps think twice before you buy another KeepCup (use a mug from home?). Instead, chat to your MP, send them a letter, call them, tell them you vote for policy. Then you can pat yourself on the back for investing in an environmental future not a consumerist one.
Ella Plumanns Pouton teaches Environmental Politics and Disaster Resilient Cities at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests surround environmental political issues, particularly surrounding climate change adaptation, mitigation and conservation ecology.
What do you think about consumer-based solutions to environmental problems? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.