The threat of environmental doom in the face of the climate crisis has led to an overwhelming public desire to participate in environmental activism. Nonetheless, the collective struggle has been reshaped and scaled down into a private economic issue, effectively creating a myth of individual resistance. When the burden of environmental responsibility is placed on individuals, the political and economic status quo remains unthreatened. Thus, the roots of the environmental crisis become apolitical and ahistorical as governments actively attempt to transform it into a market-based issue. This myth holds the individual accountable to the public for their consumption habits, shaming the exact kind of lifestyle designed by the same market economy.
How is the discourse of activism reduced to our acts of personal consumption?
The monetization of activism by corporations is done through meeting the beliefs of the consumer with their everyday consumption choices. By placing the responsibility on individuals, we have created an “illusion of environmental activism” that profits both the government and big businesses. Big corporations usually only selectively focus on the aspects of sustainable development that can be conveniently measured whilst making profits.
The individual is forced into working within the capitalist system and is encouraged to participate in “sustainable” consumption and habits that are business-friendly. All solutions put forward are related to another way of consumption; none of them have to do with shifting away from increasing mass production and over-exploitation. Big businesses popularized a disingenuous campaign of consumption choice to let the public believe in “the myth” that a change in individual lifestyle is the key answer to solving the climate crisis.
For instance, the fabrication of numerous “eco-labels” confuses consumers who cannot always differentiate between an “all natural,” “ethical,” “sustainable” or “fair-trade” product, but will still buy it (with less guilt) while continuing to excessively consume. These confounding eco-labels are often a product of greenwashing practices without the validation of a third party. Greenwashing refers to the pretense of associating an environmentally-friendly claim on an unsustainable product or service. As a particularly alarming example, large retail companies in the fashion industry such as H&M and ASOS have their own measurement index to “define” what is considered an environmentally-friendly product. Thus, by working within the economic system without questioning the legitimacy of the ever-expanding growth of corporations, people are drifting away from contesting the increasing privatization and exploitation of natural resources, particularly in developing countries.
Why is it so hard to organize environmental political resistance?
People desiring radical change in the system are now labelled as “idealists” or “extremists.” By treating environmental and social activism to the degree of a national threat, protestors and journalists are continuously being gunned down, kidnapped, arbitrarily detained, beaten and murdered by authoritarian powers. In the post-9/11 world, even fully democratic states like the United States (US) and Canada have normalized the control of public protests and riots by having police forces behave like the military to deter potential terrorist acts. While there is no direct declaration that protests are illegal, peaceful acts of demonstration are constantly being shut down. Youth from the Sunrise Movement in the US have been arrested for urging the adoption of the Green New Deal, which called for radical structural actions against climate change. Furthermore, the “Extinction Rebellion,” an environmental activist group founded in the United Kingdom, have testified that thousands of its adherents have been arrested on the account of peaceful civil disobedience in major cities such as London, Sydney and Amsterdam.
The only acceptable outlet left (within the confines of the capitalist system) to support environmental protection seems to be through a consumerist approach, by engaging in more conscious consumption, or as a voter by electing “greener” politicians. Despite governments’ repression of environmental resistance, the spread of eco-anxiety and environmental awareness has motivated government officials to run on a sustainable platform to gain popularity. Even political parties like the Republican party in the United States, who denied the climate crisis, and the Conservative party in the United Kingdom, who typically do not endorse environmentally sustainable platforms, cannot avoid addressing this public concern.
However, while the government advocates for environmentally sustainable programs in their political campaigns, they are also guilty of covering up civil dissent on the systematic root causes of unsustainable policies.
For example, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised during his election campaign to “clean up” the holy Ganga basin, the largest river basin in India. In 2014 (the year of his election) his political party, the National Democratic Alliance, launched a program called the Namami Gange to manage water resources. The Indian government also partnered with the World Wild Fund to start grant innovation programs to encourage research and innovation for sustainable solutions to India’s current environmental challenges.
Paradoxically, India is recognized to be one of the deadliest countries for clean water defenders and land conservationists. In 2016, Global Witness estimated that up to 4 environmental defenders were killed each week in India, reaching at least 200 killings by the end of the year. Most of the killings occurred during public demonstrations and civic protests against Modi’s development projects of coal mining and logging. The government turning a blind eye to police intimidation and to the criminalization of organized large-scale opposition to development projects has led to the violation of constitutional rights.
Thus, the line between preventing escalation of protest violence and the repression of civil freedom of expression is blurred, and is used to justify the use of lethal weapons against environmental civil protests. Ultimately, this limits environmental civil activism to one of two legal ways: enacting one’s voting rights or fighting back as economic agents (in other words, as consumers). Unfortunately, both ways are proving to be ineffectual in the capitalist system, as governments take advantage by manipulating the individuals that adopt either approach.
Why can’t we rely on environmental NGOs to fix the problem?
Despite the creation of government-funded programs and collaborations with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to convert to cleaner energy and more sustainable practices, there exists the problem of credibility of the government’s actual commitment to sustainable development. Environmental NGOs (ENGOs) are growing to work more like corporations by engaging in bureaucratic decision-making, hiring more professional human resources, managing in a hierarchical fashion, and partnering with big businesses. NGOs are usually more trusted entities by the public than government departments or corporate businesses, but as big NGOs like Amnesty grow in significance, they face greater pressure to keep their main principles at the core of their decision making.
Environmental workers, who now depend on government-funded programs or corporatized NGOs to make large-scale impact, gave up the independence that grassroot movements usually benefit from. They are becoming less radical as they are more reliant on pleasing their stakeholders over answering to the public. But there is little room for complaint when the average activist is offered the chance to make a living while working on a cause they believe in. With this financial constraint, corporatized ENGOs have implemented a new strategy of moderate activism, aiming for a win-win business-like approach to work within the economic system. This creates an illusion of free activism without much existential threat to the current political and economic status quo.
There is a co-dependent relationship between the government and corporatized Environmental NGOs that aim to legitimize one anothers’ sustainable images. It is in the public interest to put into question their unethical relationship that is perpetuating a dysfunctional system of environmental activism. Environmentally-conscious citizens resort to less radical actions because they have to rely on corporate ENGOs that are also discouraged from transforming the economic and political system responsible for environmental degradation.
Ultimately, political resistance is systematically scaled down to the individual level where the government manipulates both the voters and the consumers to enhance its relationship with corporations. Our capitalist society has reduced environmental activism to market-oriented solutions, targeting wealthy individuals to address their eco-anxiety by changing their lifestyle.