by Judith Gouverneur
Points of Convergence
To start with, there’s a lot of agreement. First, on the challenge: “In the face of climate change, dawning resource scarcities, environmental degradation, growing inequalities, biodiversity loss, etc., alternative ways of production and consumption are not a possibility but a necessity.” (Julia Backhaus) Second, on the problem behind the challenge – and thus on the central target for action: “[These challenges] are in fact synonyms of a single phenomenon: global consumer culture. And this phenomenon is firmly embedded in and held in place by socio-technical-political-economic systems aimed at GDP growth […]. In short, it is spurred by capitalist economies”. (Julia Backhaus) Third, there’s agreement on the fact that there is a tendency to shift responsibility from the production to the consumption side, from system to individual: “After the social relations of capital have managed both to degrade the environment […] and to change human relationships […], concerns about the sustainability of the planet are shifted from production to ‘unconscious consumption’.” (Jô Portilho)
According to Lewis Akenji, the described shift of responsibilities involves a problematic doubling of demands, „plac[ing] responsibility on consumers to undertake the function of maintaining economic growth while simultaneously, even contradictorily, bearing the burden to drive the system towards sustainability.“ Whether this blame shifting towards consumers is another coup of the capitalist system, opening up new, “green” market areas which allow consumers „[to] delude themselves into believing that they’re doing their part to consume sustainably when they are not“ (Erik Assadourian); whether it is purposefully conducted, as conveyed in Lewis Akenji’s formula of “consumer scapegoatism“, or rather a matter of „responsibility escapism“, as Julia Backhaus puts it – what is agreed is that „it is rather convenient for policy makers and companies to hide behind the notion of freedom of choice and delegate the burden of responsibility to the individual consumer.“ (Julia Backhaus)
But when it comes to defining consumer’s role within the much needed transformation of unsustainable lifestyles, freedom of choice is a highly problematic concept – and at least questionable as an argument. Julia Backhaus describes this difficulty as the complex interaction of mutually affective internal (that is, knowledge, habits, attitudes, norms, values) and external influences (such as infrastructure, culture, policies, institutional framework) on the individual which at least relativizes the idea of freedom of choice. For Jô Portilho, the consequences of the systematic entanglement of the individual are very clear: „The consumer is not an extraterrestrial being, he is a worker in a factory, a school teacher, businessman, politician, citizen! Once the consumer is part of the social relations permeated by a logic which requires consumption as its safeguard, there will be no individual solutions”. While there is agreement on the fact that “the individual alone hardly has the power to bring about the changes needed to foster sustainable consumption” (Julia Backhaus), both Julia Backhaus and Lewis Akenji also indicate the ambiguity of the concept, pointing not just towards its misuse but also towards the danger of foreclosing potentials for action and innovation which a more positive reference on the ideal of individual freedom of choice and action as a reclaim of not just social, but also political rights might offer.
Individualizing responsibility is not just futile, it is dangerous
Lewis Akenji calls attention to another interesting problem which is closely related to the blame shifting-practice, namely that individualizing the responsibility to bring about a more sustainable way of living may not only be unfair and little productive, but also dangerous as it threatens to undermine solidarity and social cohesion. „Take the example of a city dweller with pro-sustainability values (e.g. likes riding bicycles to work) but comes up against the limits of infrastructure (e.g. no bike tracks on roads). The reality: you can buy all the bikes you want, but you will not use them on our roads – unless of course you want to be crushed by the ‘legitimate’ road users – car owners!” Against this background, it becomes clear that Julia Backhaus‘ call for the mainstreaming of sustainable choices and initiatives which up to date remain “niche practices” is not just a strategic question. It is also of utmost importance when we want to make sure the “project sustainability” will not be viewed as one which can only be realized outside society or even against it instead of together with and within society.
In this context, the question also arises of whether there is such a thing as the often claimed sustainable consumption and whether it really serves the environment and the people or rather promotes a moralization of consumption which underestimates the social relevance of consumption and hence abets the drifting apart of society. „It would be unproductive to abandon individuals at the center of the morale maze”, says Lewis Akenji. “A reform of institutions would spare us a demoralising debate, not the least by taking away the bad options that pit societies or individuals against each other.“
As a consequence, there is urgent need to strengthen politics, meaning not only the reinforcement of the primacy of (democratic) politics over the markets and a re-politicization of the concept of sustainability, but also the re-solidarization of consumers. ”We cannot fall in the trap that we will solve the contradictions posited by the unscrupulous relation between the great capital and the national states by devaluating politics in itself”, warns Jô Portilho. “To the contrary, options of structural change towards a sustainable planet in no way can exist without strong, democratically managed institutions, permeated by the paradigm of global solidarity.” And according to Erik Assadourian, the way individuals conceive themselves will influence the way they address the challenge of overcoming current unsustainable lifestyles: “Indeed, the global consumption and production system is so fully stacked toward wasteful exploitation and extraction […] that it may be beyond our collective ability to stop. And certainly far beyond that of individual consumers’ agency to address in any meaningful way (at least if they focus on their power to consume differently rather than their power as political and social actors).“
It’s not only about what or how much we consume – We also have to change what we see in consumption
Consequently, all authors treat consumption not primarily as a private action, but as a social activity through which, on the one hand, social processes of identification and distinction and, more indirectly, the allocation of social recognition takes place and which, on the other hand, acts as both pillar and driver for production, hence contributing to the perpetuation of a system based and depending on continuous growth. Through this, the authors make one thing very clear: Those who take seriously the need for a change of our ways of living cannot tie this demand to consumption alone, much less to individual, private consumption, but will have to include the production system as well as the existing institutions as crucial and influential pillars of the current system.
Besides concrete action targeted at corporate reform and a re-orienting of institutions, actions will also have to be directed towards an at least partial decoupling of consumption from the social functions it fulfills, meaning we will need to find and provide socially viable alternatives. As for the processes of how social recognition is being distributed throughout society, for example, an important step towards the decoupling of social status and consumption would be to restructure the employment and working sector in a way that allows for different mechanisms of recognition-allocation beyond money and its most visible expression, consumption. “Instead of disqualifying people without paid employment, everyone is able to participate and contribute as people are valued in terms of their time and actions in these alternative systems of production and consumption”. (Julia Backhaus)
Sustainability as justice
Throughout the discussion, something else becomes clear as well: Those who take seriously the need for a change of our ways of living will have to read the question of a sustainable living together also as a question of justice. On a first level, this is directly comprehensible, for if it was alright with us that in the foreseeable future a decreasing number of people will be able to live under humane circumstances we would not have to have this urgent debate, at least not here and now. But in the context of consumer responsibility, justice also points to the problem of a highly differential access to freedom of action and choice. „Of course, we cannot underestimate the capacity of resilience that organized consumers have to say ‘no’”, says Jô Portilho. “But neither can we assume that all consumers are part of a homogeneous category [...]. If all consumers corresponded to the same North American standard, populations of Africa could refuse to consume the medicines distributed to them in human testing regimes, or refuse to eat GM food offered as humanitarian aid. However, since there is a class society, the competition for access to food and essential goods precedes awareness of destruction. Hunger is a bad counselor!“ And finally, the articles show that the growing inequity within societies as well as at a global level is not only conceived as unjust, but holds an explosive force which gives fighting injustice a significance beyond the motive of building a more equitable world. Erik Assadourian expresses this very drastically, saying that „ultimately, the consumer culture will implode as ecological systems break down, and as temperatures hit 2, 4, even 6 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial averages. At that point, only the richest will be able to afford to live consumer lifestyles, while the vast majority of people will need to seek out an alternative cultural orientation—ideally a sustainable one, though at that point any that enable them to survive will in all likelihood be accepted, whether that be fascism, theocracy, corporate feudalism, or whatever other models a dystopian future might bring.”
Points of Divergence
To sum up, the discussants widely agree on the fact that the challenges of our consumption-driven society are primarily systemic and that therefore, the necessary change will have to be a change of the existing system, complete with the culture, values and norms at its basis and the institutions in which they are embedded. Without letting consumers off the hook too easily – focusing on the individual for action will most certainly not do. Rather, what we need is ideas that transcend the borders of the uniform thinking in which we have established ourselves quite comfortably, often accepting the alleged lack of alternatives too easily as an excuse for inaction.
So, is the search for sustainable ways of life, for sustainable models of society and development taking us to the edge of our imagination? Probably not, but it sure takes the discussants to the edge of accordance.
When it comes to the questions of “Where to go?” and “How to get there?” the authors’ ideas range from a democratic, bottom up-driven transformation to ideas recalling the concept of development dictatorships; from the very practical and action-oriented idea of a plurality of local initiatives developing into the fundamental cultural change identified as necessary to plans for an avant-garde driven reengineering of cultural norms „to delegitimize the consumer way of life altogether – so that living sustainably feels natural and living as a consumer becomes a societal taboo.” What sounds like a “utopian fantasy” – as opposed to a multitude of possible dystopian futures – to Erik Assadourian, is harshly criticized by both its commentators. Interestingly enough, it’s the same finding of the inseparability of social relations from the dominant relations of production – although derived from completely different theoretical backgrounds – that lead Assadourian to the conclusion that „we will need cultural pioneers that can extract themselves from the dominant consumer cultural paradigm and work toward bringing about a new sustainable culture. […] These pioneers will need to embed themselves in existing institutions – government, business, education media and advertising, social movements, even religions – working to overhaul systems and the cultural norms they reinforce to make them orient on sustainability.“ Jô Portilho, on the contrary, strongly rejects this idea on the grounds of its authoritarian approach. Even though Portilho does not say so explicitly, her thoughts about „human garbage“ present a strong warning against any kind of utopia which presents itself as a closed and therefore radically exclusive ideology. For any principle withheld from democratic contestation will necessarily produce whole groups of people who are simply not wanted. No such principle will ever be sustainable, not even sustainability itself. „The ecological philosophy suggested by Assadourian will have to promote its own ethics on the importance of changing habits towards sustainability. In other words, it will be a philosophy compatible with the new sustainable rationality. This rationality of an ‚ideal type‘ [that] will guide the populace […] is outside it”, while according to Jô Portilho, we “[need] to join forces to break the logic of the market to change society from the inside”.
Arguing along similar lines, Julia Backhaus dismisses Assadourian’s approach as a possible road to a “green totalitarian regime”. Her utopia is a pluralistic one, a utopia of many small utopias: „Indeed, visions, exemplars and practices are needed, but many of them and different ones for different people.“ Lewis Akenji aligns himself with this, suggesting „assemblies of small meaningful actions that chip away at the core of the hardened consumer culture. This includes seeing out-of-market solutions, not being locked in the ultra-capitalistic view of life“.
Erik Assadourian’s idea of cultural pioneers and eco-missionaries creating a global ecological-philosophical movement “complete with a cosmology, theodicy […], ethics, stories and practices that help bind communities together” understandably enough conjures up fears and historic memories of the worst kind, and respective developments would surely have to be observed with “extreme caution”, as Backhaus says. However, the parallel Assadourian draws to religion and its multiple shapes also allows reading the idea as one directed at an overall consensus within which competition between a plurality of interpretations is possible or even intended.
Points of Departure
So, where do we go from here? In fact, one of the most important lessons might be that we will have to come to accept and appreciate that a certain amount of insecurity and antagonism of ideas will always accompany us on our search for more sustainable ways of living together. With the way towards sustainable lifestyles still widely uncharted, for now it makes sense to focus not only on the destination, but to consider the way ahead already as part of the change we are calling for. As such, we have to make sure the transformation will be a democratic, that is: an emancipative process which does not foreclose, but open up points of access for as broad a public as possible. This process, of course, will take time. For it to succeed, we will have to make sure that all these actions are being increasingly embedded in society and will be propped up by parallel larger-scale changes which lead to “more supportive framework conditions on national or even global scale, including appropriate policy agendas, subsidy schemes, indicators, etc.” That is: We need a fundamental systemic change which does not build upon the individualization of responsibility that will wear out social solidarity and has already distorted our ideas of freedom and community, but rather encourages people to rediscover their actions as meaningful and to re-open spaces of political action. Because “the greatest danger is that we believe that things cannot be changed and that it is not possible anymore to find democratic solutions for the human existence.” (Jô Portilho)