Friday, September 9, 2011

From Green Consumers to Green Citizens

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director, Product Policy Institute

An opinion piece in the New York Times on September 7, “Going Green but Getting Nowhere,” questions the value of individual actions like recycling in combating global warming:  “The reality is that we cannot overcome the global threats posed by greenhouse gases without speaking the ultimate inconvenient truth: getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail.”

Sound like an anti-recycling rant from a right-wing free marketer?  But it’s not. The author, economist Gernot Wagner from the Environmental Defense Fund, is on to something important.

As someone trained in ecology, I find Wagner’s basic question to be spot on: What actions will the planet notice?  He’s right in stating that the magnitude of changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe are “so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.”  And he points us to a key problem: “individual action … distracts us from the need for collective action.”

I’d go further.  I believe that we have become so immersed in our consumer culture that our civic personas have atrophied.  We see ourselves as consumers first and increasingly powerless as citizens.  We don’t see that recycling, to take a prominent example of individual consumer action, has been embraced over reuse and source reduction by corporations because it doesn’t threaten profits and growth.  Changing those priorities requires concerted civic action.

Wagner is correct that we need collective action to solve -- or even adapt effectively to -- global warming.  That’s why I work with citizens for policies that require corporations to be responsible and bear the cost of the environmental impacts of the products they design and from which they profit. Called extended producer responsibility, these policies aim to send price signals to consumers that make the greenest products the less expensive ones.  Collective action is needed for such planet-saving government policies.  The public voice also needs to be at the policy-making table, along with the private sector voices of "stakeholders," to protect the public interest.

Where Wagner comes up a little short, I believe, is in not articulating the potential connection between individual lifestyle actions, like recycling, and collective action.  Individual lifestyle actions need not distract us from collective action if the message is promoted and understood that lifestyle changes are necessary but not sufficient.  Responsible consumerism will only make a difference in slowing global warming if it is a springboard to the collective actions that individuals must take to get governments to adopt policies that address fundamental problems.

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