“Green consumerism” vs. consuming less

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.)

7 thoughts on ““Green consumerism” vs. consuming less

  1. There was a piece on old-fashioned frugality in Christianity Today recently that touched on one Christian’s baby steps in more simple living and consuming. I think for a lot of churches, talking about personal economics is a little too personal and gets people suspicious that you’re knocking capitalism. I certainly agree that churches could play a much larger role in discouraging consumerism and the thoughless accumulation of mass quantities of junk, but it’s much more acceptable to talk about sex or any other controversial issue than it is to talk about money.

  2. Pingback: Saving the Planet–through Conspicious Consumption « haligweorc

  3. Camassia

    At my church, this kind of thing is a pretty big deal — both the green-consumption aspect and the non-consumption aspect. Personally, the practice that I’ve found the most helpful is the way stuff circulates. People are so constantly borrowing/giving stuff to each other that a few months ago the staff decided to put a table in the social hall where people could drop things off and graze around for things they need. Now there’s a copy of the new Harry Potter book circulating — there was a conscious decision to buy one book to share in order to avoid waste.

    The sharing aspect does prevent a lot of consumption, because a lot of things we buy we end up using only once or twice (or even never). However, this sort of thing also raises the issue of “correction” that you brought up earlier, i.e. how much we really want to enforce this as a moral imperative. For all the anticonsumerism at my church, there isn’t much of one; a lady I know has a serious shoe habit, for instance, and people laugh about it but it isn’t a big deal. It’s always tricky to draw the line between being responsible and being puritanical.

  4. Kim – nice article. I think his point about the difference between being frugal out of necessity vs. being frugal by choice is worth thinking about. In some sense it’s “easier” to do something when the pressures are so immediate.

    I also agree that churches do have to walk a line of sorts between being too permissive or complacent and too zealous for “correction.” I do like the idea of a shared pool of items that Camassia describes both because it’s a neat idea and because it’s totally voluntary and non-coercive.

    Maybe that points to a direction churches can go in – maybe we don’t need environmental fire and brimstone from the pulpit (though maybe we do!), but rather for churches to create those kinds of alternatives that allow people to ease up on their consumption and opt-out of the competitive economy to a certain degree.

  5. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if people earn the same amount and consume less, they will save the money and create greater funds for investment, which will power economic growth which will . . .

  6. Well, I don’t think personal consumption choices are a replacement for political action if that’s what you mean. (And Monbiot is explicit about that.) But if our present patterns of consumption are unsustainable (especially when expanded to a global scale), we’ll have to consume less one way or another maybe we should start getting used to it now. Plus, it might be good for our souls!

    And, besides, people could always give some of the money they save away to charity. Some people might even choose to work less (though that’s clearly not an option for everybody).

  7. Pingback: The “green consumer” revisited « A Thinking Reed

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