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March 24, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

Paying Gold to be Green

The ethical eco-life is for sale, and it’s expensive. Madeleine Foreman asks if this is distracting us from ‘real’ solutions to environmental issues, and if it’s making us all sound a little elitist in the process.



I am the best kind of environmentalist, and I’m probably a bit better than you. I wear French perfume to cover up the odour caused by walking up all of these hills. I only use it because my Thursday Plantation Tea Tree Oil deodorant sometimes doesn’t work so good, okay? I eat organic. I am local. I am greener (read: better) than you.

Is the way that I exercise my environmentalism elitist, and ultimately, distracting from ‘real’ policy solutions? Probably. Definitely. Individuals are not the problem when it comes to environmental issues. Individuals, therefore, cannot be expected to be the focus of the solutions to these issues. Environmentalism that focusses on ethical consumption is bougie, alienating and annoying, and it comes at the expense of real institutional change.

For us ‘millennials’, the big ol’ environment prob is not new – we grew up with nursery stories of rising carbon dioxide, resource shortages, and the proverbial shitstorm which we will one day inherit. Vital ecological processes and atmospheric functions upon which we depend have been deeply disturbed by us puny little humans. We get it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report is bleak as fuck, and the response to it from most governments has been to comfort their populations with small solar-panel schemes, and to throw sand at each other from their respective sides of the sandpit. What has our response been to this, and has it been effective?



The prevailing response to environmental issues from society has been to increase the surveillance of the individual. We monitor our ‘correct’ environmental decisions, and we watch to check that others carry out correct patterns of eco-consumption. We are told that environmental degradation, carbon emissions, and that issue with those fish in our local river, is the fault of all of us. Responsibility is apportioned equally. We must engage with the state, through elections, and in the meantime we must ‘BUY THE RIGHT THINGS!!!’ in order to be good consumer citizens. Our organic tomatoes and dolphin-friendly tuna quell the guilty feelings, and we are told by our Facebook feeds that we’re ‘making a difference’.

Ben Gleisner, National Director of Conscious Consumers, believes in the power of the consumer. According to the Business and Consumer Behaviour 2013 survey, he says that two-thirds of consumers would switch brands if their regular brand was having a “bad effect on the environment, people or society.” While it’s important to give consumers more information, I’m unsold on the overall effectiveness and okay-ness of the conscious-consumer idea.  Why?



Complex issues like ‘New Zealand’s carbon emissions per capita’ are seen to be within reach of Janet from Accounting and Mandy from History class. Janet and Mandy can make a small difference, for sure (they’re dears), but to blame these two women for New Zealand’s recent emissions alongside major producers is unfair, and misleading. 40 per cent of our country’s carbon dioxide emissions come from transport, and as much as dear Janet rides her bike to work and back each day, she is not doing much to dismantle the institutional obsession with motorways by doing so. There’s no use agonising over our ‘choice’ between cycling or driving to work, when really we just want effective and accessible public-transport systems – something which isn’t solely the result of those ‘consumer dollars’.

The idea of the ‘conscious consumer’ surely means there are ‘unconscious consumers’, or, as Gleisner says, “constrained conscious consumers.” It’s easy [and boring] to throw shade at the tired image of the Wellingtonian hipster with their holier-than-thou kale quiche, so I’m not going to. The point is, though, eco-goods are usually extremely expensive, and not an option for the majority of consumers. Environmental chat often involves generous lashings of paternalism towards those who cannot (or will not) consume ‘ethically’. For some environmentalists, ‘educating uninformed people’ is hot. Changing people’s minds about their ‘unethical lifestyle choices’ is hot. ‘Giving time and consideration’ towards people who can’t take the bus home because their shifts are late, and so they have to own a car, and sometimes eat Farmer Brown eggs because after their rent they don’t have much money left, is not so hot.

The belief that we must be ‘eco-chic’ by volunteering our time instead of our money is equally as annoying. Volunteering in our times is quite a large sacrifice, or an activity of the economically privileged. Louise Sherrell, recent Victoria grad and Generation Zero volunteer, says when thinking about volunteering, consumption, and environmental policy, “it’s not about being a martyr and having dahl five nights a week because that is all you can [ethically] afford,” but rather, it is about “systemic policy change,” which presumably engages in institutional thinking.

Environmentalism that posits individual behaviour as the key way in which citizens are able to express their environmental values means that ‘political activity’ becomes elitist, and atomised. Focussing on our ‘destructive consumption’ means that there’s not much room to consider the role of institutions and producers, their culpability for environmental harms, and their responsibility for resolutions.

By all means, eat your organic broccolini and feel content while doing so – you go gal. For some, this is empowering. Consider, however, rethinking your eco-enlightened status. Paying gold to be green is an individualised, elitist environmentalism that leads us to confuse consumers with citizens, and means that we police others’ choices in damaging ways. If we care about the environment and the broader policy solutions needed to address its currently sobering state, then we probably should stop telling others to eat their greens.


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