Lifestyles and activism

A large amount of modern-day activism is based on the promotion of wiser individual lifestyle choices. By making changes in the way we live and becoming conscious consumers, this kind of activism suggests, individuals can make positive change in the world. We are encouraged to consume organic, fairtrade certified, and locally produced goods, along with lowering our overall levels of consumption. Making wise consumer choices, we are told, will be beneficial for the environment, poor producers in the developing world, as well as our individual health and spiritual wellbeing.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a statement often invoked in support of lifestyle-centric activism. Although these words find themselves regularly being attributed to the wise Mahatma, there is no documented evidence that Gandhi ever uttered or wrote them. Even if the statement could be attributed to Gandhi, it can easily be demonstrated that it was not meant to be a prescription for activism.

While it could be said that Gandhi’s lifestyle choices were a big part of who he was, he understood that simply adopting a minimalist lifestyle would not bring about the change he wanted to see in the world. Creating social change, Gandhi recognized, required social organization and political agitation. If Gandhi had limited his actions to living a humble life in an ashram and establishing a small self-reliant economy, it is easy to contend that he would not have contributed to the betterment of the world in a very large way. On the other hand if he had forgone the adoption of a minimalist lifestyle, there is no reason to think that he could not have been a successful social activist. In fact, he began his career as an activist in colonial South Africa, long before returning home to British India and embracing the simplicity for which he is now known.

Becoming an “ethical consumer” does not do very much to challenge the structures which lead people to adopt such a lifestyle in the first place. Purchasing fairtrade certified coffee, for example, may help a small number of farmers in poor countries receive slightly higher incomes, but it does nothing to change the unjust nature of international trade, which forces such farmers to grow cheap cash crops and impoverishes them.  It does nothing to challenge the fact that while rich countries loudly proclaim support for free trade, their protection of agriculture results in an estimated $50 billion in lost annual income for the developing world. $50 billion is about the total amount of development aid given to the developing world annually.

We are told that we need to “vote with our wallets”. The demand we generate will over time supposedly cause producers to offer more and more ethical products. Such implorations, first of all, misleadingly utilize language popularly associated with democracy to talk about an area of life which is fundamentally undemocratic; some people have bigger wallets than others, and hence, have more “votes” in the marketplace. Secondly, consumer sovereignty, the idea that independently derived consumer demand drives production, is inconsistent with reality.

In Looking Backward, an 1887 novel by Edward Bellamy, the main character makes his way to a utopian future where the profit motive no longer exists. He surmises that the new arrangement must save “a prodigious amount of lying”, explaining to an acquaintance from the future that “when one’s livelihood and that of his wife and babies depended on the amount of goods he could dispose of, the temptation to deceive the customer – or let him deceive himself – was wellnigh overwhelming.”[i]

We have a word we use to refer to this kind of “lying” and attempts to “deceive the customer”: advertising. A tremendous amount of effort is expended in order to convince consumers to purchase goods and services. The process of production is strongly tied with the process of marketing of what is produced. Producers bring into existence a large part of the demand which they then fulfill. Global spending on advertising amounted to more than $500 billion in 2010.[ii] Writing on the “myth of consumer sovereignty”, the eminent economist John Kenneth Galbraith asked whether “a new breakfast cereal or detergent [is] so much wanted if so much must be spent to compel in the consumer the sense of want?”[iii]

In the marketplace producers are vastly more powerful in comparison to consumers. Campaigns focused on ethical consumerism have managed to achieve as much success as they can hope to find: niche markets have been created for especially-conscious consumers, and for the rest there is green-washing, fairtrade-washing, etc. Unfortunately, justice is not something that comes in commodity form.

Strategic uses of boycotts and other market-based initiatives as part of wider campaigns may help bring about progress in certain circumstances, but they have to part of a bigger vision of change to matter. And there are many good things to be said about cutting back on what we consume and living in a way that is not grounded in petty materialistic values. As Henry-David Thoreau put it: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Living a clutter-free life is a wonderful thing, but it not the same thing as working to create change.

It should be recognized, rather, that our ability to make token changes in our lives while retaining, or even enhancing, our standard of living is the result of our position as a privileged minority in a system which overtaxes the environment and exploits the poor. It is not enough for us to simply look inward and change our individual actions while continuing to benefit from the overall arrangement of things.

When confronted with the kind of the critique presented here, lifestyle-centric activists often proclaim that they do not mean for people to only change the way they live, but that making lifestyle changes can be a first step in actually becoming engaged with the problems of the world. However, rather than engaging people in a way that encourages them to learn about, and potentially do something to change, the structural causes of injustice, lifestyle-centric activism often takes away such an incentive. People feel that they have “done their part” once they have picked up the habit of buying organic and fairtrade goods, cut back on the amount of meat they consume etc. They can rest easy thinking that the world is a better place because of their actions. Instead of being a first step in engaging with the problems of the world, focusing on lifestyle changes often serves to be a distraction: It ends up being a step in the wrong direction.

On a final note, I would like to point out the troubling extent to which lifestyle-centric thinking has made its way into activism. The idea that decisions made by influential personnel in the employ of mining companies are a matter of lifestyle choices, rather than being overwhelmingly determined by institutional forces, is something I witness being upheld by sincere activists on a regular basis. Times are bad.


[i] Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.

[iii] Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Essential Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

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14 responses to “Lifestyles and activism

  • Leah

    I’m glad you shared this perspective. The only problem I find is how to develop the incentive for everyone to care about these problems and act on that information/lack of information. How do we get people to dive deeper? Maybe nobody has any answers yet, but would be curious to hear yours 🙂

  • Connor

    Well said. There’s only one thing I had trouble understanding and it was this: “The idea that decisions made by influential personnel in the employ of mining companies are a matter of lifestyle choices, rather than being overwhelmingly determined by institutional forces…” Could you give an example of such a decision?

    • Umair

      Thanks for the question, Connor. I definitely could have done a better job of explaining what I was getting at with the last paragraph.

      People who support Corporate Social Responsibility often argue that employees of mining companies can be convinced to not to make decisions that harm communities in the developing world, and this should fix the problems associated with the issue. I take a less delusional position on the topic: people’s “goodness” is not something we can rely to make sure communities aren’t harmed. There are institutional forces which make even “good” people working for a mining company prone to doing things that are not good. The first of the main forces which impact such actors is competition. It drives them to cut costs wherever they can to remain ahead of other firms. The other force is regulation, which currently is very weak and hence doesn’t stop them from cutting costs (and as a result thinning safety and environmental standards) to such a degree that the operations of the company will cause harm to poor communities.

  • Arthur

    About taking steps: while Gandhi might not have needed to take the first step as a prerequisite to creating social change, it seems to me that it would be a prerequisite for most people (taking a 1st step, becoming more knowledgeable, and diving deeper). Do you believe that the risk of 1st steppers becoming complacent outweighs the potential for 1st steppers to move onto next steps? While I agree lifestyle-centric activism can be dangerous, I don’t agree that your implication that it isn’t needed in this world where apathy and ignorance/obliviousness is rampant.

    I would venture to say that many of the people who feel like they’ve done their part after a 1st step may have reached their potential to create change regardless of the lifestyle activism and the complacency it may induce. Campaigns usually have more information – e.g. “why does fair trade exist”, “next steps”, “write to your MP”, “learn more”. Do you argue that there isn’t enough of this? Does this need to be reinforced? Like Leah asks, what keeps the incentive to do more alive?

    And thanks for the reminders about the underlying issues – but I want to hear you dive deeper as well. What are your thoughts on moving forward on the following issues (other than re-designing society) ?

    Advertising and consumerism: How can society rein in advertising? Regulation and enforcement? Education? Limiting media consumption? ???

    Trade: How do individuals affect the unjust nature of trade and challenge the double standard of subsidization? Protest, lobby, advocate? What about the value of building alternatives such as fair trade systems to show people there are better ways? Supporting these initiatives that do not have much real value but serve as educational tools?

    • Umair

      If most people who get stuck at the “first step” have reached their change-making potential, then we can safely say that most of the general members of EWB have reached their change-making potential.

      Lifestyle-centric activism is leading to more “apathy and ignorance/obliviousness”. In a world where such things are so rampant, why would we want to make things worse?

      To respond to Leah’s question, it’s not all that hard to get people engaged in real issues. We just have to start talking about them, and promoting the fact that they exist. At this year’s EWB conference, there were a number of sessions on the topic of fairtrade/ethical consumerism, but not one on issues that have to do with the injustices of international trade. If we’re not talking about, and willing to get engaged with, the issues among ourselves, we definitely won’t be talking about them with other people. We often talk about how international development is complex, but we don’t seem to be interested in exploring the complexity.

      Arthur, here’s a thought on moving forward: Stop promoting lifestyle changes, start learning about international trade and build an organization which has campaigns that deal with real issues in the same way that we have campaigns about fairtrade and being a good global engineer. (That’s what the entire post is about, by the way. I don’t understand how you seemed to have missed it.) Or are you asking that I provide point-by-point instructions on how to organize such a campaign? Yeah, okay!… Is that what’s stopping you or anyone else from engaging with these issues, learning about them, trying to organize around them? I don’t remember writing up a point-by-point recipe for how to organize a campaign around fairtrade certification. I wonder why people picked that up.

      Any initiative that seeks to change society is about “re-designing society”. I don’t understand how we could be “moving forward” without “re-designing society”. Please do share any ideas you have about how we can move forward while we continue to stand in the same place.

      Advertising and consumerism: We won’t be albe to do much about these things without first sufficiently “re-designing society”. It’s nice for you and me to stop consuming so much, but if everyone consumed less we’d be screwed. The economy relies on continually increasing consumption and investment to survive. It’s pretty important that we get to “re-designing” such a messed up way to live, don’t you think?

      Individuals can’t really do much to “affect the unjust nature of trade and challenge the double standard of subsidization” or much of anything else for that matter. (That’s also what the entire post is about.) It takes social organization to create social change.

      Fairtrade isn’t an alternative. It gives a small number of producers of primary commodities a bit more money and keeps them producing primary commodities. And anyway, are you sure we wanna build alternatives? That would get into “re-designing society”, no?

      • Arthur

        Hey Umair,

        I feel like you are misjudging my comments. Maybe it would help if I prefaced my comments with positiveness, but I actually get what you’re saying and I don’t disagree with your well thought out arguments.

        You repeat “that’s what my post was all about” but actually, you didn’t say this in your post:

        “Stop promoting lifestyle changes, start learning about international trade and build an organization which has campaigns that deal with real issues in the same way that we have campaigns about fairtrade and being a good global engineer.”

        Maybe it’s obvious to you, but in your post, you only make a good argument, but you don’t say anything about what could or should actually happen. When I say “short of re-designing society”, I mean this as a matter of scale and proportion. For example, hypothetically if I led EWB, I would scale down fair trade and lifestyle-centered activism – but I’m not.

        You’ve presumed that I’m against re-designing society – I’m not and I want to know what it might involve beyond blog posts and convincing fellow readers of grand ideas.

        To answer your rhetorical question, no, your lack of instructions hasn’t stopped me or others from engaging in the real structural issues or learning about them (guess why we read your blogs). I believe why fair trade campaigns get picked up despite lack of instructions would be because 1) it’s easier for people to understand and act on (which is actually a bad thing as you’ve discussed), and 2) it’s “doable” and accomplishable, whereas a campaign on unjust trade would be difficult to measure results from, would not be of interest to as many people (but also like you’ve discussed, lifestyle centered activism is of zero or negative value / true achievement)

        So you say that it takes “social organization” to create change. What do you mean by that?

        and finally, I am interested why you think “Lifestyle-centric activism is leading to more “apathy and ignorance/obliviousness”.” Do you believe people get dumber after exposure to stuff like fair trade?

        and going back to my original comment: Do you believe that the risk of 1st steppers becoming complacent outweighs the potential for 1st steppers to move onto next steps?

      • Umair

        I’m going to jump into diagnosing again why people jump into things like promoting fairtrade certification without thinking things through. I’d say part of the reason for it is the behavior you’re displaying, Arthur.

        If as an engineer you had to design and build a bridge over a river, you would first survey the riverbed, the characteristics of the flowing water, the surrounding terrain, etc. After you’d done all that you’d figure out where and how to build the bridge over the river.

        You came out here and were all like, “Oh yeah, advertising is bad. Alright, let’s rein it in. Let’s do something about it. Should we get some regulation in?” If you went about building a bridge that way, it would certainly fail to stand. Before figuring out how to rein in advertising, we need to figure out what advertising is, how it works, why, etc.

        And that’s part of why fairtrade gets so much traction with activists. Somebody says, “Omg international trade is unfair. Let’s do something to fix it. Don’t mind looking at how it works, let’s just jump to figuring out what to do. Oh look, there’s this fairtrade certification stuff. Alright, let’s do it. Since we don’t understand how things work we’ll never really figure if this is a good solution, but hey, at least we’re doing something.”

        Now, it could certainly happen that in activism we get too lost in the details of how the “river” works and never get to building the “bridge”. If such a thing was the case I would be right with you in getting out there to build the bridge. But how things seem to be working around here such a circumstance is furthest thing that could happen right about now.

        If I had to explicitly state what the article was about within the article for you to understand it, then I’m really sorry for you. While reading Lord of the Flies did you fail to realize that the book was about a bunch of kids on an island because a sentence explicitly stating that fact wasn’t in the book?

        I’m happy that you’re pro-redesigning society. If you don’t understand how I “presumed” you were against it, then there’s something wrong with you. I’m sorry I have to say it like that, but that’s the only way I can make sense of it.

        What does social organization mean to you? If you don’t understand what it means, then I can’t help you.

        Because of activism which promotes fairtrade certification people get into thinking that they can change the world. If before this, they were generally ignorant of how to change the world, then I think its safe to say that they have become qualitatively more ignorant as a result of lifestyle-centric activism, because buying fairtrade products doesn’t change the world. In fact, thinking in that way gets in the way of figuring out how to actually change the world. So yes, lifestyle-centric activism increases the ignorance in the world.

        And it’s not a “first step”, learning to be a conscious consumer. As I said in the post, it’s a step in the wrong direction. It distracts us from learning about the problems and figuring out real solutions to them. Why start there when you can start with engaging people by getting them to explore how the world actually works.

  • Sylvie Spraakman

    Great post Umair. I wonder about how a focus on lifestyle activism came about, though, and maybe the reasons for that are what’s stalling us from talking about the broader issues on a more regular basis. My humble opinion is that a focus on lifestyle activism came about as a way to make the problem more tangible and real. It’s hard to grasp international trade and all its complexities – I’ve been in EWB sessions before where all we were trying to do is educate people about trade injustice and what we can do to stop them. It’s so complex, depressing, and such a huge mountain to climb, that we have to do something in the meantime. I think that’s where lifestyle activism came in – while we’re working to get trade injustice solved, we need to do something so that people don’t lose interest in the cause – so let’s focus on things that affect people’s daily lives – consumer habits.

    But how can we get past that? If we just focus on all the big picture issues, we lose people. We have to start somewhere then get up to big-picture issues. And I think that’s where EWB started out – but has maybe lost its way a bit, or forgotten why it went down that path in the first place, and hasn’t kept the original path in mind.

    What do you think are the underlying reasons for moving to this kind of activism?

    For my part, I want to be really involved in Transition, and changing the system so that we’re less dependent on oil. I’m trying to start a community garden, host movie screenings, work with other local environmental organizations to promote their events, etc. I feel like this is the right progression to be on – doing little things bit by bit, that are super tangible, while keeping the education bit going throughout so that people don’t lose sight of the issues. But I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get too focused on creating a local food system and miss the bigger picture issues that drive this, who knows? But it’s too big of a problem to be tackling head-on. Thoughts?

    • Umair

      Just as what Bailey mentioned in her comment below, I’ve read some stuff that suggests the focus on individual lifestyle changes really took off during the 70s. The counterculture created by the activism in the 60s was fertile ground for the growth of niche markets based on conscious consumption. Producers turned the table on consumers by linking individual responsibility to choices in the market.

      So while I definitely think part of the reason why individual lifestyle changes are so often focused on is that we want to give people tangible things to do and think about, it also has to do with the attitudes that have become entrenched in our culture.

      In my experience I haven’t noticed that people become uninterested after diving into the complex nature of problems. I’ve actually found the opposite is usually the case. People seem to become more engaged and more willing to commit and willing to change the course of their lives (in an unrelated way to choices in the marketplace), the more they learn about the true nature of problems.

      It definitely often feels like no matter what we do things won’t go in the direction we want, we are tremondously better positioned, in comparison to other people in the world, to make change. This is especially the case on the issue of reliance on oil. Even other people in most developed countries don’t have as much power to make change as we do. The state and a large number of corporations that are working to further co-opt it for their benefit, are clear targets for our actions. I think building community initiatives that feed into state-wide initiatives seems like a pretty good way to go. The risk of focusing too much on individual or local changes that don’t translate into larger goals is something, I guess, that has to be seriously considered and guarded against along the way.

  • bailey

    You know, I once read in a history course how people used to hold corporations accountable to environmental concerns (circa early 70s). Then the corps had a fantastic idea, deployed by an even better marketing campaign: YOU are the one who should be held accountable. You are the one who must create change. And suddenly the onus was on people to recycle, drive less, etc. etc. I think that we need to switch the thinking on a massive scale.

  • Don D

    Interesting post Umair.
    Immediate thought was whether you’ve read/listened to any Zizek? He discusses some parallels/issues briefly here (more on the ethics of charitable giving though): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g

    • Umair

      That’s a great talk by Zizek. I’ve never read him, but I’ve read the essay by Oscar Wilde that he quotes when talking about charity: The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Very good stuff.

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