In “Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change,” Derrick Jensen gives details on how corporations and government entities, as opposed to the individual consumer, have largely contributed to the gradual destruction of the environment. Jensen writes, “More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans” (6). Therefore, if all US citizens decreased their water usage daily by twenty percent, the clean water shortage would show little to no improvement. In other words, regardless of how much water each individual tries to conserve on a personal basis, safe, potable water would still continue to run out and we would still have a crisis on our hands.
In “101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian,” Pamela Rice explains how agribusiness practices contaminate water in the US. Rice references a New York Times article about a family in a rural area of Idaho:
The Kudlows drank from a private well at one time but now spend $150 a month on bottled water. They live within two miles of 30,000 feedlot dairy cows. The animals generate as much sewage as a medium-sized city, but, as is typical, treatment of the manure is not required. Bacteria, pathogens, and pharmaceuticals associated with feedlots contaminate the water. Nitrate levels six times those set by the EPA as safe were detected. The federal Clean Water Act remains silent about groundwater pollution, and state agriculture departments tend to side with the polluters. (Rice 4)
Much of US water contamination can be linked directly to water used for industrial agriculture. The agribusiness model of food production continues to contribute to the decline of human health. However, interestingly enough, for decades the government and food industry have made it seem as if consumers were the ones in charge of production and consumption.
Focus on the individual consumer arose with the emergence of industrialization in the eighteenth century. According to Michael Maniates in “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?,” for decades US governmental agencies have continuously emphasized the importance of the individual consumer while maintaining support of big business. This, in effect, shifts environmental responsibility away from the government and corporations, and passes it on to the individual consumer. Maniates gives a historical context,
The ’80s was a decade in which re-energized, politically conservative forces in the US promoted the rhetoric of returning power and responsibility to the individual, while simultaneously curtailing the role of government in an economy that was increasingly characterized as innately self-regulating and efficient. Within this context, responsibility for creating and fixing environmental problems was radically reassigned, from government, corporations, and the environmentally shortsighted policies they were thought to have together fostered, to individual consumers and their decisions in the marketplace. (39)
President Reagan’s doctrine of personal responsibility, corporate initiative, and limited government further encouraged the notion that American consumption and production lied within the hands of individual consumers rather than corporations and government (40).
Today, the widely held idea that consumers can help save the environment if they make the choice to consume differently continues to spread throughout the world. By adding ethics into the equation, a whole new market of green products allow corporations to make even more profit than before. Until just recently, I admit that I, too, believed that if I purchased eco-friendly products, recycled as much as possible, conserved as much water and energy as I could on a daily basis, and tried to get others to develop similar habits, then together we could make a considerable, positive impact on planetary health. At the age of fourteen, shortly after I had watched An Inconvenient Truth, I remember buying Joanna Yarrow’s 1,001 Ways to Save the Earth (see slideshow above). I thought to myself that I was doing my bit by following the simple advice on the pages of this book made “on paper from sustainably managed forests with vegetable-based inks!”
While mindfulness of the individual does hold significance, this way of thinking diverts attention away from criticism of those in power. Maniates explains, “individual consumption choices are environmentally important, but [consumers’] control over these choices is constrained, shaped, and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective citizen action, as opposed to individual consumer behavior” (50). Green consumerism distorts perceptions of our own personal responsibility for environmental problems. The labeling of products as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ can give off the impression that purchasing these particular products can save the earth. In truth, these labels make consumers see themselves as do-gooders but does little to prevent the destruction of the environment. Once again, this classification lies within business as usual model, which works with corporate interests in mind. The only way to make change towards a more environmentally sustainable future lies within collective citizen action.