Breaking the mould of individual consumerism

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[Written by Sophie Cassel]

[Image Credits: Original Image by Joy Dakers. Edits by Florence Bridgman]

A ruthless drive for profit is the beating heart of the capitalist economy. The capitalist market works under the assumption that the necessity of market growth may come at the expense or exploitation of people and the natural environment. The shift towards neoliberal economics in the past few decades has pushed for the deregulation of the market, which has given corporations and big businesses free rein to drill, extract and commodify every part of the earth with very little intervention (Monbiot, 2016). New data from 2019 shows that 1/3 of the world’s carbon emissions are caused by just 20 companies (Taylor and Watts, 2019). 

What is so important to understand about neoliberal capitalism is that it is not just an economic system that is detached from politics and society. It is, rather, an ideology based on economic thinking, which takes all things that previously existed outside the market dynamic into the marketplace. Market values become the guiding principles of society, and thus form a societal mould which we must fit into in order to lead a successful life. Based on the assumption that humans are inherently selfish, market society incentivizes individuals to compete with one another for economic gain. Our actions must be calculated and self-serving in order to succeed (Brown, 2003: 39, 40).  Emotions, dependency, or any sense of community are considered to be weaknesses under this philosophy and hold no value within the confines of market society.

While this may sound somewhat abstract, our attitude towards the environment has been profoundly shaped by this market ideology. Fed with the idea that validation comes from constant consumption, we (the English-speaking West) have obsessively bought more than we need with little concern for the growing waste we produce.  As our society has become more and more commodified, we have incessantly demanded the mass-production of products from the major carbon-emitting industries. And while the capitalist market boundlessly extracts these resources, our society as a whole has barely questioned this destructive process. Mirroring the market, we have learned to treat our earth as a disposable resource, from which we can endlessly take, without giving anything in return.

There is, however, only so much we as individuals can be blamed for. In recent years, the neoliberal market has offered its own version of a response to climate change. The message has been very clear: individuals must change their habits. We have been advised to buy more sustainable clothes, organically sourced food, or a bike. All of these suggestions imply that we as individuals can save the planet through a behavioral transformation. The insinuation behind this is deeply disturbing, namely that our current behavior and lifestyles are also responsible for causing climate change (Mason, 2008). 

The more we live through neoliberal ideology, the more we are unable to recognize the market’s depoliticization of its own role in causing climate change. By offering solutions which focus solely on changing individual habits of consumption, the neoliberal market shifts the blame firmly onto individuals, leading us to believe that it is up to individuals to address the crisis.

It is no coincidence that reusable coffee cups and straws are the face of western environmentalism. These forms of environmental action intentionally point the blame away from the market and redirect our attention to different products and markets with a more sustainable focus. This allows corporations to continue the activities which primarily fuel carbon emissions while we believe we are addressing climate change (Chmel, 2019). 

But it is not – and never will be – enough to buy a reusable cup, or even to dramatically ‘green’ our lives; of course, we need to do that anyway. We need to put an end to our overconsumption. We need to waste less and generally live more sustainably. But this is only possible if we disentangle ourselves from the neoliberal philosophy that has directed our actions – and inactions – for so long. We need to stop regarding our earth as a disposable resource. We must also relearn to treat our environment with care and compassion, and more broadly, make space for these values in our everyday life.

Most importantly, the entire economic system requires rigorous restructuring, in a manner by which our environment and our citizens become the priority. A system built on perpetual growth cannot operate without continuously extracting resources and searching for new sources of profit and cheap labour (Fleckenstein, 2019). If we want to prevent climate change, we must demand radical alternative solutions to the current system. And the means to achieve this is through collective action. We have been led to forget the power of the many in demanding change. Neoliberal governance has led us to believe that we are strongest when acting on our own. This has strategically assured that we attempt to solve problems individually, rather than collectively standing up to systemic injustice.

Extinction rebellion is currently the largest example of a growing global movement of people collectively attempting to hold large corporations and governments accountable for perpetuating climate change. Their force as a collective movement in pushing for policy change has been remarkable, and should be taken as an example of the collective force civil society can yield (Townsend, 2019). The movement has, however, come under criticism for its exclusion of women, people of color and non-western perspectives. Whereas the neoliberal model perpetuates social inequalities by ignoring the existence of cultural, structural and historical imbalances in society, our collective movements must move away from these forms of exclusion. If we want to achieve climate justice and move away from the apolitical society of the individual, it is crucial that a global climate movement represents and involves the voices and perspectives of all people (Akec, 2019).

We must therefore connect our movements across borders and cultures in solidarity, and actively push for radical change. Now is not the time for neutrality and individual endeavors, but time for us to gather our collective anger and direct it at the corporations and financial institutions who have long been destroying our planet. In the immortal words of Hannah Arendt, power “is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (Arendt, 1970: 44).

Akec (2019):
Arendt, H. (1970) On Violence, Allen Lane: London
Brown, W (2003) “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy”, Theory and Event, 7(1), pp. 37-59.
Chmel (2019):
Fleckenstein (2019): 
Mason, M (2008) “Transparency for Whom? Information Disclosure and Power in Global Environmental Governance”,  Global Environmental Politics, 8:2, pp. 8-13
Monbiot (2016):
Taylor and Watts (2019):
Townsend (2019):


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