For those who follow the latest social change trends, sustainable living is the buzz term of the day.
Composting your own food waste. Living in a tiny house. Beekeeping in your suburban backyard. It's hip, it’ll keep the economy purring, and it’s profoundly exhausting:
“I just remember standing there with tears welling up in my eyes. Looking at these two tins of tomatoes, just trying to decide you know, do I buy the organic ones, but they're Italian? Or the non-organic ones, but they're Australian? And I was just … I'm even feeling emotional about it now. Then I thought I've got to get some chocolate and I'll feel better and I'll be able to make a decision. And I went to the chocolate aisle, but of course, I didn't have my ethical consumer guide with me and didn't know which chocolate I could buy that didn't have child slave labour behind it. And then, that was the moment I got really angry. I was just like hey, hold on a second, why is this my job? Why am I supposed to spend every moment, reading every label to make decisions about things that aren't even perfect decisions anyway? Why isn't the job of the company just not to use child slave labour? Why is this all put on me? And I felt really angry and I just, and that's when I realised that all the time I'd been feeling like that whole taking individual action was empowering, but it's not. It's actually keeping you in your place. All of a sudden I saw that as actually a very convenient narrative for big corporations.”
This experience was recounted to me, as part of my research interviewing environmental campaigners about their advocacy experiences and successes. Choosing the ‘right’ tin of tomatoes wasn’t high on the list; in fact, not one of the 26 interviewees said that either the individual consumption or lifestyle choices they, or others they have influenced, were one of their successes.
Instead, they chose big wins like stopping mining and development projects and protecting parcels of conservation land. They had empowered their communities, worked to build partnerships with other groups, and won funds to implement their advocacy activities.
They demonstrated that grassroots advocacy could be successful.
Despite the fact that it is difficult to empirically measure whether environmental advocacy directly achieves campaign success, many of the current rights and freedoms we enjoy owe their existence to the activities of countless advocates who came before us. Advocacy can create social change. It has in the past, and it can in the future.
So why is much of the modern environmental messaging about individual change rather than systemic change?
It is understandable why people may choose to change aspects of their lifestyle rather than external economic, social and political systems over which they have little control. Choosing a bamboo toothbrush doesn’t require an individual to take a public moral stance on an issue. Aspiring to live sustainably doesn’t require expert knowledge on why capitalist systems are unable to address climate change. And of course, choosing to spend your time trying to achieve systems change can be uncomfortable, costly, stressful and demanding. Most of my interviewees shared common stories of burnout, conflict, and aggression.
For these reasons and more, purchasing can be much easier than protesting.
It’s comforting to believe that we can buy our way out of our environmental problems. Yet, it is clear that sustainable living and lifestyle changes will not be enough in isolation to address global challenges such as climate change. Like climate change, many of our environmental problems are systemic problems which require collective action to change.
Living sustainably, but in isolation, is not collective action. However, this does not necessarily mean it is futile. As my interviewee above discovered, individual awareness of the need for a sustainable lifestyle could actually be a pathway towards collective action:
”So all of a sudden I felt really powerful and I was like ah, bought whatever chocolate. Forgot about the tomatoes. Yeah, I just went and bought whatever. Went home, fed my baby, put him to bed and wrote a letter.”
And from these experiences, a strong, vibrant and active collective of environmental advocates is born.
- Robyn Gulliver
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.