Tag Archives: change

The Myth of the Green Consumerism: Personal Change ≠ Political Change


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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.


Behavioral Change towards Food Choices in School


According to Gary Gregory and Michael di Leo in “Repeated Behavior and Environmental Psychology: The Role of Personal Involvement and Habit Formation in Explaining Water Consumption,” behavior change lies in conjunction with a process that deals with the connection between knowledge, awareness, attitude, personal involvement, habitual intentions, habitual behavior, and situational variables, which include socioeconomic, demographic, and physical environment variables. Over the next two and a half months, my group members and I in the Environmental Communication course at NYU would like to improve nutrition in a public school. Many citizens of our country do not make healthy eating choices. This problem starts at a young age. In the following, Gregory and di Leo explain how the first step that leads to deciphering behavioral outcomes has to do with gaining awareness:

Awareness is a mental state that an individual reaches by consciously accepting and processing informational cues. Closely related to the concept of knowledge, awareness can be thought of as the application of knowledge to a specific object, situation, or action. Awareness can also trigger information search in an effort to achieve greater knowledge. Awareness is clearly an important first step toward the attainment and synthesis of information, and serves as an important antecedent in determining behavioral outcomes” (Gregory and di Leo 1263).

Our plan includes educating children in workshops about the advantages of eating healthily and providing students with organic, locally sourced, plant-based school meal choices. We hope to create awareness through knowledge, and then apply the education to everyday life choices in terms of daily food intake. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I grew up learning about the Food Pyramid Guide in primary school, which has turned out as an ineffective guide to eating and living healthily due to its accordance with corporate interests rather than public/consumer interests. However, the USDA food guides do engage directly with individuals through designating personal involvement on the individual. Gregory and di Leo write, “Persuasive communications need to focus on increasing personal relevance (involvement)” (1286). We aim to gear these workshops around the idea that the information given to students will directly affect them on a personal level through making them aware of the consequences surrounding their decisions on what foods they choose to consume and the potential benefits in making informed choices (1285).

We made children in primary school our target audience because children do not have as strong of habits that have been deeply rooted into them in comparison to adults. Their perceptions of the world continually change until they reach adulthood. However, we understand that these children may already have habits formed in relation to the foods that they eat. Factoring in socioeconomic, demographic, and physical environment variables holds key to understanding routines of these students. As mentioned by Gregory and di Leo, “Understanding the factors that maintain routinized responses is a first step toward developing successful intervention strategies to change habitual behavior (Ouellette & Wood, 1998)” (1285).

In “The Rise of Seafood Awareness Campaigns in an Era of Collapsing Fisheries,” Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly points out how a disconnect severs the relationship between the seafood industry, seafood awareness of consumers, and seafood awareness campaigns. The main problem lies within the characteristics of the market itself and difficulty in traceability. Products get represented through labeling as either/both eco-friendly and/or high quality due to financial incentives associated with marketing a product in such a manner. Case in point, illegally caught Patagonian toothfish gets passed of as Chilean sea bass, flesh of low value fish gets marketed as imitation ‘krab’, and Thai shrimp often get exported as wild-caught rather than farm raised (310). Jacquet and Pauly bring attention to the point in time when whales were on the brink of extinction. During this time, a change in public opinion of whales occurred in which whales got de-commodified through a temporary prohibition on whaling and thus, the wide public acceptance of ‘whale mythology’ (312). By means of the moratorium on whaling, the International Whaling Commission transformed the attitudes of people in the public through widespread knowledge and direct involvement. Jacquet and Pauly reason, “It is only when a similar revulsion is felt by the public about the wholesale destruction of fish populations and marine ecosystems that we can hope to save them from our management and our appetite” (312). We will consider this idea of changing the way in which people perceive food in our project of nutritional education and the application of nutritional education in a public school. Gregory and di Leo state, “Environmental awareness campaigns should be aimed at promoting reasoned influences (changing attitude and involvement), promoting habitual behavior (changing habits), or both” (1286). Students must see both the disadvantages of eating fatty, processed foods and the advantages of a healthy, plant-based diet, the information should remain directly relevant to the individual student, the information should encourage consistency in choosing healthy food choices, and the application of the education links to the availability of health foods in the school cafeteria for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.