On the Oprah Winfrey Show two years ago, Al Gore’s upbeat message was
that we’re not helpless in the fight against global warming. The camera
rolls as he pushes a shopping cart down the aisles of a giant Lowe’s Home
Improvement Store “to show you the five things you can buy that will help
solve the climate crisis…and save you a few bucks!” The fabulous five
are compact fluorescent light bulbs, outdoor solar lighting, programmable
thermostats, air filters, and a blanket to insulate an electric hot water
The inconvenient truth is that while it’s a good thing to buy
energy-saving products, it’s hardly going to solve the climate crisis.
Green consumer capitalism just won’t cut it. The Bali climate conference
in December called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% below
1990 levels by the year 2020. Meeting this target would require dramatic
changes in economic and energy policy both in the U.S. and
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about the role of individual
consumption. This is a consumer society, after all. You have to start
where people are, not where you think they should be. In working for
climate justice, activists have an opportunity to frame consumption in
ways that move beyond Al Gore’s shopping cart to call into question some
fundamental tenets of capitalism, the “American way of life,” and
the militarism that undergirds them. After eight years of the
Bush-Cheney regime, people are hungry for loftier values, as evidenced by
the remarkable response to Obama’s candidacy.
Here are ten ways we could frame consumption simply and effectively:
1. There are different kinds of consumption. There’s a big difference
between luxury consumption, predicated on economic disparities and
wasteful resource use, and necessary consumption that meets basic human
2. Every little bit counts. Even though we can’t solve the climate
crisis by turning off our lights, middle and upper-class people in the
U.S. could make significant individual reductions in carbon emissions by
shifting to energy-saving technologies and curbing luxury consumption.
3. Money doesn’t buy you love. It’s time to value quality of life over
quantity of things. If measured by the number of antidepressants
consumed every day, the U.S. is the unhappiest place on earth. A saner
lifestyle — of less consumption but more security, including universal
access to health care — would be embraced by many people. Ditto for
smaller, cluster housing units but more green space; fewer cars but more
high-speed trains; less money but more time.
4. We are what we eat. We need to look critically not only at how much
we eat, but where our food comes from. Agribusiness and factory farming
of livestock are huge energy guzzlers. We need to support small-farmer,
sustainable agriculture at home and abroad. And the food tastes better to
5. The personal can become political. Individual action on consumption
can help to create a more politically aware and active citizenry,
committed to fighting for public policies to reduce carbon emissions at
the local, state, regional and national levels.
6. Don’t forget the people who need to consume more, not less. The
ability to buy green products and curtail excess consumption is a class
privilege. There are many who lack this privilege in the Global North as
well as the Global South. More than one in ten U.S. households are
experiencing or at the risk of hunger.
7. Just climate policies provide an opportunity to raise the incomes and
consumption of poor people. To date, most cap-and-trade carbon schemes
have provided windfall profits to the energy giants. The Lieberman-Warner
bill now before Congress would give most of the carbon permits
free-of-charge to large energy corporations, a great skyway robbery.
Instead, carbon permits should be auctioned and the money should flow
into public coffers to help poor people offset higher energy costs and to
support universal access to health care, education and employment,
including the development of green jobs.
8. Don’t be afraid of Indian and Chinese consumers. The Global North is
mainly responsible for the climate crisis. The Global South has the
right to develop. We should support green technology transfer that helps
countries like India and China leap-frog past the heavy use of fossil
fuels in the industrialization process.
9. Capitalist ideology and overconsumption go hand-in-hand. The
imperatives of endless economic growth and the exploitation of human and
natural resources for private profit got us into this mess in the first
place. We’re not going to get out of it until we put our heads and
hearts together and figure out new ways of doing business.
10. Don’t forget the military. The U.S. military is the biggest single
overconsumer on the planet. It uses as much oil as the entire population
of Sweden (see http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/5097). In a vicious cycle, the
Pentagon burns massive amounts of oil to secure access to more oil in the
Middle East. Its war-making machine also devours our tax dollars. The
war in Iraq has already cost over half a trillion dollars. We can devote
those resources to far better things. Al Gore got it wrong. What we
really need to fight global warming is something money can’t buy: peace.