Wow, I have a huge, honking new recycling bin. It seems like overkill, coming in just under the size of a Smart Car, and I really can’t tell if my household is up to the challenge of filling this baby on a regular basis.
After chucking in two weeks of recyclables, we’d barely reached the halfway mark at pickup time, a clear indication that we’ve been neglecting our role as citizens, er, I mean, consumers. Obviously, we need to start buying more.
Alas, what started all those years ago as a valiant effort to nudge residents to get with the three Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) has morphed into a fervent consumer campaign that has vanquished “reduce.”
It’s not just evidenced by the new supersize bin, but also by the endless variety of ways we’re encouraged to be “green” while indulging unabated our addiction to shopping.
You get the feeling that heading into stores, eco-friendly or otherwise, is our job here in the so-called developed world. We shop. We are the world’s consumers, the engines of the economy.
When George W. Bush advised Americans after 9/11 to get out to the malls, he was reminding them who they were.
Ditto here in Canada. Earlier this year, Preem Dalton McGuinty, while playing down the possibility of a recession, suggested that if Ontarians really want to help the economy, they should just get out there and buy that new refrigerator or car.
Indeed, if we don’t buy stuff, we’re not upholding our part of the global bargain.
But U.S. political theorist Benjamin Barber suggests the recession his country may or may not be in right now is largely about consumer exhaustion from buying at the required rate.In town to talk about his new book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, And Swallow Citizens Whole, at OISE on April 2, Barber says that while he applauds the movement toward green products, “even if we all bought Priuses, it wouldn’t begin to deal with the environmental issues before us.
“We can’t as consumers make the world we want.”
Barber, whose bestseller Jihad Vs. McWorld was published a half-decade before 9/11, throws cold water on the OISE crowd’s questions about eco-conscious buying.
“I applaud any action that can be done by individuals, but ultimately there are limits to ‘buy green’ thinking. It begins to reinforce the notion that consumers can do better than citizens. Citizens think in ‘we’ terms; consumers buy for themselves.”
Other critics say that, in fact, the green buying movement has a tendency to anaesthetize citizens, the exact opposite effect that environmentalists want.
“Any time consumers believe they’ve taken care of a problem individually, they’re less likely to worry and take political action,” says Andrew Szasz, a sociology prof at University of California at Santa Cruz and author of Shopping Our Way To Safety: How We Changed From Protecting The Environment To Protecting Ourselves.
Take the case of bottled water. Its popularity, he says, can be traced back to the enviro movement’s early years, when alarms were raised about toxins in our drinking water.
“What activists hoped to accomplish 25 years ago was the creation of a movement, but something unexpected also occurred: people began to buy bottled water. Instead of a political campaign of engagement, people shopped.”
And a multi-billion-dollar, environmentally catastrophic industry was born.
But if going into shopping rehab triggers a recession, that wouldn’t be good for the environment, would it?
Jim Stanford, boy wonder economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, says we can have our cake and eat it, too – sort of. “If we did something like cut consumer spending in half, we’d have a very marked recession and rising unemployment, neither of which we want,” he says.
“That said, I don’t see a conflict between the environment and the economy.”
Stanford, author of the upcoming textbook for activists, Economics For Everyone, says less consumer spending and less production, if managed properly, could net out wonderfully for both.
“Lost spending by consumers would have to be replaced by ramping up spending on public infrastructure, childcare, elder care, green technologies and energy innovation. Less production would require a shorter workweek to avoid higher unemployment.”
But just how do individual consumers ramp up spending on things like energy innovation and public infrastructure? The long answer is they don’t. Only citizens, through, uh, taxes, can get the job done – diverting resources from private spending to public infrastructure and services.
Looked at another way, it’s like trading in our consumerism for our citizenship. “Yes, this requires a bigger government role. You can’t leave it up to the free market,” says Stanford.
So if you must buy something this Earth Day, for sure buy green. Me, I think I’ll spend the day on hold with the city, trying to exchange my recycling behemoth for a smaller one.
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