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.