Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Climate change and the beast of consumerism

It might sound strange, but climate change is deeply geopolitical. What will sound even stranger is that the reason it is geopolitical is because business is involved. It is important to see how its inclusion is actually a defence against change. Companies know this, which is why they offered to help.

Consumerism is a beast, a global beast, far more powerful than any mere government and perhaps Gaia herself. A business response to any problem will always be to merge product with identity and lifestyle, to keep everything exactly where it is.

It must do this because obtaining energy from solar or wind is far more expensive than getting it from fossil fuels. The ethics part is pure marketing and spin. It is postmodern: Buy this product and a portion of the proceeds will go to a charity which stands opposed to the damage caused by that same product. The response is an attempt to integrate forgiveness for consumption into the act of consumption itself.

Business needs to be absolutely modern about climate change. It must acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of a consumer society. Any solution lies in science and careful social progress. The consumer society is being replaced by a social society, where people base their lives on the actions they take and not the goods they buy. People need to stop being alienated from each other and forced together creating a gross asymmetry between the consumer choice and its social alternative.

No, this doesn’t mean more immigration. It means public transportation should be free, paid for by astronomically high petrol taxes, vehicle taxes and road tolls. This would force a social choice to see cars as inferior and lead to their use being discouraged. The problem is not in discarding the car – which is the greatest symbol of personal freedom ever devised. The problem is in evolving modern society away from consumerism, which is what a car really represents. Business cannot do this.

The need is obvious. Infrastructure wouldn’t be expensive to maintain if people refused to buy junk they don't need. The junk wouldn’t arrive from China at ports, wouldn’t get transferred to rail cars then to articulated trailers headed on long haul highways. And none of that junk would land in grotesque shopping malls, all of which require a snake pit of roads, junctions and overpasses.

New lightbulbs aren’t enough, they are the problem. A radical social choice is needed to eliminate the illusory freedoms provided by consumerism (the false choice among commodities for which a need is created artificially by the dominant ideology) and elevate true freedom (the freedom from the anxieties of basic human survival). The penalties of consumption must be integrated into the consumption itself, forcing people to act with full understanding of the consequences.

Sure, one complaint may be that institutions shouldn’t be co-opted by wealthy corporations. But those institutions were never really democratic. They aren't supposed to be. The Western model was predicated on the assumption that the voter, the fundamental unit of democracy, was a wealthy educated landowner. It assumes the wealthy elite doesn't need to influence the government by way of back channels because only the wealthy elite can elect the government in the first place.

From this perspective, anything that falls short is a defective compromise. The radical’s greatest opponent is not the conservative, but the liberal. Because the liberal is the pleasant face of a dominant mythology. Anything short of radical transformation leaves some aspect of the old system intact. And as history shows, eventually, the old system grows and spread like cancer to take over the entire edifice.

If it’s true such a social change is required due to climate change, it needs to be accepted that the great adventures of capitalism are now entirely out of the question. The egalitarian, dignified society doesn’t send people to the moon – desperate consumerist hegemonies do. Those adventures are trying to prop up deteriorating myths with grand and magnificent spectacles.

The consumer society produces as its consequence the art factories in Hollywood and New York because it industrialises everything, including the production of art. Consumerism eats even philosophy, turning it into new goods. Philosophies are supposed to compete, but consumerism is different. Humans have not yet discovered a philosophy powerful enough to attack consumerism and survive productisation. But doing this is the only way climate change can be assuaged.

Rest assured that the hobbled compromise with consumerism that is liberal democracy will ultimately supply free healthcare and universal basic wages, but it will also ensure citizens have to use them. It will create doctors so it can make us sick. It will sell affordable insurance so it can sell us sexy unsafe cars.

It will produce the trendy sustainable and “green” object and be there to collect it from the garbage after it sells the counter-trendy “green” object. It will treat society towards a boom so it can enjoy the bust. Consumerism will make sure people are rich enough to desire things they don't have, but poor enough that some things are always outside their reach.

So we have to pick. The choice is between a radical restructuring of modern society or continued ruthless global consumerism upholstered in postmodern liberal democracy. If climate change is a reality business cannot be the answer. Consumerism will eat the movement – it already has – morphing it into a product to feed the beast.

The choice is between a poverty of consumer choices on the one hand and the poverty of the consumerist life on the other. Those are the only two choices. The religious fundamentalists and the fascists are merely reactionaries. Their problem, quite literally, is that they find the global environmentalist’s lack of faith in their own ideals disturbing.

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