Many liberal environmentalists say that people must sacrifice some luxuries to save the environment and/or help the world’s poor. A more equitable sharing of the world’s resources means some will have to give up a bit.
For the well-off, sacrifice is like charity: giving up a few privileges to make themselves feel better. For such people, the idea of sacrifice tends to reinforce an elitist mentality.
But for poorer, working-class people, sacrifice has a different connotation.
They have made sacrifices for the boss and the government, sacrifices that are never repaid. “Sacrifice” has been the neoliberal mantra of the last three decades of falling standards of living, longer work hours, lower wages and social service cutbacks.
British socialist Jonathan Neale argues against environmentalists using the idea of “sacrifice” at the outset of his 2008 book Stop Global Warming: Change the world. In particular, Neale points out that most of the world’s people do not have much to sacrifice. They need more, not less.
Part of the problem is that the argument for “sacrifice” is often made only in relation to what individuals buy for themselves.
In conservative economics, “consumer sovereignty” is the idea that the consumer demand determines what is produced for sale.
Barry Commoner related the following hypothetical scenario to show how little power consumers have in reality: “You go to the store to buy a refrigerator.
“You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, ‘Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad’?”
Arguments against consumerism must go beyond appeals for more enlightened consumer behaviour. Otherwise, consumerism is reduced to the actions of individuals unrelated to other people, companies or institutions.
Sadly, since the 1990s “green consumerism” has been the main form of environmentalism in many countries.
Australian author Clive Hamilton has written two books against consumerism, Growth Fetish and (with Richard Denniss) Affluenza: When too much is never enough.
The authors explain convincingly that a growing level of material wealth (affluence) in the rich countries has not been matched by growth in happiness.
However, “affluence” is a dangerously vague term. Neale quotes socialist writer Vincent Navarro:
“An unskilled, unemployed, young black person living in the ghetto area of Baltimore has more resources (he or she is likely to have a car, mobile phone, and TV, and more square feet per household and more kitchen equipment) than a middle---class professional in Ghana, Africa.
“If the whole world were just a single society, the Baltimore youth would be middle class and the Ghana professional would be poor.
“And yet, the first has a much shorter life expectancy (45 years) than the second (62 years) … It is far more difficult to be poor in the United States … than to be middle class in Ghana.”
Neale commented: “That person in Baltimore may not need those extra things, but he or she does not want to give them up. They are a sign that at least they have something. Possessions are the way people in their society keep track of power and powerlessness.”
Given this, Neale said the environment movement had to find “the sort of measures that can stop global warming without ordinary people having to sacrifice what they hold dear”.
We all know that people do get obsessed with their things. Cars, hi-fi sound systems, cars with sound systems — many people do actually “hold dear” these things.
Telling people to sacrifice may not be useful as a PR strategy, but finding ways to promote better lifestyle rather than more consumption are important. Working people have to fight for not just more money, but for better social institutions and community facilities that will improve quality of life regardless of wealth.
Hamilton looks to “downshifting” for his solution: voluntary opting out of the system of overwork and overconsumption.
Australian socialist Brian Webb commented: “Hamilton’s downshifting may connect with the widespread sentiment that we are working too hard, but it is an individualistic solution that ignores those that don’t have the option of accepting a lower income or cannot change jobs or negotiate lower hours with their employer.”
Hamilton, to be fair, doesn’t just rely on individual downshifters. He also called for “the entrenchment within popular culture, public and private institutions and, ultimately, government of a predisposition to promote the quality of social and individual life rather than surrendering to the demands of the market.”
Neoliberal economic policy (traditionally called “economic rationalism” in Australia) led to a massive restructuring of the working class though outsourcing and privatisation. Large centralised workforces were broken up into atomised and competing groups of workers.
Hamilton conflates this process with a shift from industrial capitalism to a new form of consumer capitalism. He considers this change an established reality rather than a site of ongoing class struggle.
Let’s retrieve the class struggle from Hamilton’s dismissal. The destruction of unions and working life perpetrated by neoliberalism is not a done deal but a continuing process.
That workers have already lost so much in this battle makes their conditions of struggle in the workplace all the more difficult, but not irrelevant. Consider the mass strikes that took place recently in France, or the massive street protests against the Work Choices laws in Australia a few years back.
But let’s not ignore the real issues raised by Hamilton either. Let us not reduce the class struggle to the workplace, or simply to a struggle for workers to gain a larger share of the wealth.
Certainly, the old communist regimes of Eastern Europe were guilty of downplaying environmental concerns while promoting their own brand of growth economics. As Hamilton notes: “The cold war ideological divide was not about the desirability of economic growth. On that all agreed.”
Capitalism is not just something that occurs when a boss exploits a worker, even though that is central. It is a global economic system. The continuation of the system relies on workers accepting the part they play in it.
Ideology is therefore key, and consumerism is the ideology of modern capitalism — so much so that otherwise astute analysts like Hamilton even think that consumer capitalism is a new stage surpassing industrial capitalism.
We cannot wait for the impoverished Third World masses to beat down the doors of imperialism and destroy it from the outside. Nor can we expect spontaneous uprising against capitalism in the heartlands of imperialism and consumerism.
We have to organise struggles that break out of the logic of capitalism while providing real benefits to sustain people in the struggle.
For example, what is the best response to rising petrol prices? Wage rises at work? Or increasing public transport services to the level where most people no longer need a car?
The public transport solution is not an easy demand to win against capitalism, but it will actually solve the problem.
But it is also a threat to one of the biggest sectors of capital — the auto industry. They know car sales will drop if most people have access to decent public transport instead.
The auto industry is one of the largest consumer expenditures (after housing). If people don’t need to pay off their cars, there would be less pressure on them to work longer hours. And that’s not even factoring in the climate benefits of less car use.
Some socialists tend to dismiss many practical, small-scale environmental schemes — community gardens and organic food co-ops — because they look naive, utopian or even hippy-like.
But what is wrong with people organising to recreate community and solidarity against the flow of capitalism? As isolated projects they are limited, but they are also a potential resource for social change that we ignore at our own risk.
Also, these kinds of initiatives, which point towards a sustainable food system, could be a vital part of the solution to climate change.
If we are to imagine a future worth fighting for, our progress has to be defined ecologically and culturally, not purely in politics and economics.
We need to base our activity as part of the class struggle in the broad sense, not just wages and taxes. We need to fight for victories that undermine capitalism’s harmful treadmill of production and consumption.