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Writing on the Wall: Mainstream environmentalism is killing the planet

The ideals of conscious consumption and sustainable development promoted by the environmental movement are detrimental to creating change.

In September of last year, I had the opportunity to attend the People’s Climate March in New York City with members of the Sierra Student Coalition and the Ohio University Student Union. At the time, I was a self-identified environmentalist who valued individual action through consumer choice and “sustainable development” managed largely by scientific investigation and entrepreneurship. Imagining that the others attending the march would be environmentalists operating within a similar framework, I was fairly surprised to find myself on a bus full of people who scorned those ideas as stemming from the rigid hegemony promoted under the tyranny of neoliberalism.

I didn’t really understand what words like "hegemony" or even "neoliberalism" meant at the time, but I picked up on the gist. Basically, what those people were saying is that the vision of a world governed primarily by the whims of the market can never be compatible with a vision of a sustainable world. Since the environmental movement emerged in the 1960s, we have completely failed to create a sustainable society. The reason the movement has failed thus far, I believe, is that it has been operating under the dogmatic idea that the primary role that individuals occupy is that of consumer. That understanding suggests that the viability of change rests within the ability of consumers to purchase responsibly, eventually transforming the marketplace.

Despite what hegemonic neoliberalism would have us believe, the primary role that we occupy within the world is not consumer, it is citizen. If our primary means of societal action were consumption, we would never be able to challenge the economic system that is destroying our planet. The logic of the marketplace is that of profit, and it will never be profitable to consider the environment first. The ideal of "conscious consumption" and the vision of "sustainable development" do not challenge that logic and instead feed into its ideals.

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For instance, let’s consider vegetarianism. Although the environmental degradation related to meat production is immense, to stop eating meat does not challenge the system that allows concentrated animal feeding operations to exist. If you’re a vegetarian who pays taxes, for instance, you are paying for the government (really just another arm of corporate power at this point) to subsidize the corn that is used for animal feed in concentrated animal feeding operations.

Many environmentalists would perhaps respond with something along the lines of, “Well, if everyone lived like I did, there would be nobody to buy meat, the meat industry would not exist, and we would have no problem!” Though that basic sentiment here is perhaps true, it is fairly simplistic to think that "conscious consumption" can ever be adopted on a large scale. That is not because too few people have the moral compass necessary to be conscious of what they consume, but because people are incentivised into buying the cheapest products. Furthermore, it is fundamentally classist to suggest that everyone can and should overcome the financial incentives that have allowed for corporations to destroy our planet. Walk into any health foods and you’ll see what I mean.“$7 for eggs?” one might ask,“when I can get them for $1.25 at Wal-Mart? No way!”

Expecting individuals to purchase "consciously" is to say that no one outside the upper-middle and upper classes can effectively become environmentalists. We simply cannot create a large-scale movement when the movement itself is classist and therefore racist. And, if we can’t create a large-scale movement, we can’t create large-scale change.

Instead of promoting “conscious consumption,” the environmental movement must challenge institutions, governments and the fundamental idea of the marketplace as some sort of divine invisible hand that always does right. Most actual campaigns will necessarily be reformist to a certain degree — for instance, the Student Union’s current fossil fuel divestment campaign will not overthrow neoliberalism if implemented. However, when the movement collectively challenges large-scale institutional purchasing power, it inherently becomes dangerous to the economic system. And, if we can begin building that sort of environmental movement, then we can eventually create a fundamental transformation of our society and world. Until we can do that, challenging large-scale institutions and connecting environmental issues to issues of race and poverty rather than excluding those who are not middle-class and white, then the environmental movement will not only fail to save the planet but will aid in its destruction.

Daniel Kington is a sophomore studying English and a Student Union organizer. He is also an officer of the Sierra Student Coalition. What do you think of environmentalism? Email him at

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