A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a story on the new “green consumerism.” Today George Monbiot writes that it’s not good enough to “buy green”; we have to buy less. His contention is that “green” consumption is at this point a supplement to rather than a replacement of conventional consumption and that people have started to by flashy “green” items more as a sign of social status than as concrete contributions to the problem. The result is that individual consumption ends up being seen as a replacement for political action.
Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status. I have met people who have bought solar panels and mini-wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts: partly because they love gadgets, but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious (and how rich) they are. We are often told that buying such products encourages us to think more widely about environmental challenges, but it is just as likely to be depoliticising. Green consumerism is another form of atomisation – a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.
Challenge the new green consumerism and you become a prig and a party pooper, the spectre at the feast, the ghost of Christmas yet to come. Against the shiny new world of organic aspirations you are forced to raise drab and boringly equitable restraints: carbon rationing, contraction and convergence, tougher building regulations, coach lanes on motorways. No colour supplement will carry an article about that. No rock star could live comfortably within his carbon ration.
It does make you start to wonder if consumption is the only response we know how to make to any social problem. Hip articles associated with a particular cause become status signifiers, especially when they’re expensive. You can’t ostentatiously show off buying less stuff.
In theory Christianity should be able to provide resources for dealing with this. Theologically we deny that our identity is grounded in what we buy and consume. And the tradition of living simply as part of the path of virtue goes back at least to the Desert Fathers. But how many churches have addressed this? And how many have encouraged being virtuous consumers instead?
Not that the two should be seen as inevitably opposed. After all, we need to consume things! Things are good! And it’s probably better to drink organic fair trade coffee than conventional coffee. A lot of churches have been good at promoting things like that. But we’re probably less good at evaluating whether we really need the things we find ourselves wanting (I know I am!). What kinds of practices and resources do we have for making those distinctions? (By the way, yes I do need coffee, so don’t ask.)