To Fight Global Warming, Think More About Systems Than About What You Consume

Bill McKibbon’s review of Tatiana Schlossberg’s INCONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION: The Environmental Impacts You Don’t Know You Have.

You come away from her book with a stronger sense of the sheer largeness of the human enterprise — the number of us now consuming, and the overwhelming effect of all that volume.

We aren’t going to solve our problems one consumer at a time. We’re going to need to do it as societies and civilizations, or not at all.

One response to this would be to urge readers to buy less cashmere (and less fleece, and less cotton, and less viscose rayon, all of which Schlossberg also covers)

For 10 or 15 years beginning in the 1990s such consumer-driven environmentalism was a constant refrain, leading to endless disputations about paper towels and disposable diapers versus sponges and cotton nappies. That earlier campaign was essentially useless. Some fairly small percentage of people read those books, and an even smaller percentage took regular and clear action. Those people are morally consistent heroes whom we should all salute, but it turns out there are not enough of them to make a difference.

It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden … or governments should make sure they act responsibly.

Governments and corporations, of course, don’t do such things automatically — they need citizens to push them. But it doesn’t require every citizen to push in order to make change (since apathy cuts both ways, social scientists estimate that getting 3 or 4 percent of people involved in a movement is often enough to force systemic change, whereas if they acted solely as consumers that same number would have relatively little effect). You can obviously do both, and all of us should try — but fighting for the Green New Deal makes more mathematical sense than trying to take on the planet one commodity at a time.

Instead of trying to figure out every single aspect of our lives, a carbon tax would have the effect of informing every one of those decisions, automatically and invisibly. The fuel efficiency standards that the Obama administration put forward and Trump is now gutting would result in stunningly different outcomes. And so on.

Justice is at issue in these decisions. The giant coal ash piles that accumulate by our power plants don’t threaten golf courses — they threaten the hometowns of poor black people. A reason to fight for hyper-efficient air-conditioners is that poor people across Asia will need them badly on a planet they have done little to warm.

We aren’t going to solve our problems one consumer at a time. We’re going to need to do it as societies and civilizations, or not at all.

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