Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
In researching environmentalism, two questions have frequently occurred to me: Who is to blame for this mess we’re in? And by extension, whose responsibility is it to sort out? Is it big businesses or us as consumers?
In the last year, there attempts have been made to push environmental blame onto consumers in the form of anti-plastic campaigns and the popularity of zero waste lifestyles. While personal consumption of non-sustainable materials is certainly part of the problem, I don’t feel it is the only way to address the fight for our planet. Instead, we should be tackling how non-sustainable consumption is encouraged by big business in an attempt to protect profits within the capitalist system. Businesses and governments hold the most power and are therefore responsible for enforcing change.
The hot topic surrounding disposable packaging is a great example of how the lack of corporate action encourages and often sentences consumers to lead less eco-friendly lives. Currently, in the UK it is still extremely hard to buy items such as fruit, veg, meat and bread without also buying a tonne of plastic. Often, it’s either more expensive than your usual purchases or you have to visit a specialist store in order to find so-called ‘naked’ food. Most people don’t have the time, energy or budget to be able to make these choices and it is unreasonable to assume everyone can. Whilst I would love to see a world where everyone brought their own containers to do their shopping, mainstream supermarkets do not facilitate this as an affordable or convenient option.
Realistically, chain supermarkets are more influential than consumers through both their purchasing-power and environmental impact, but unfortunately their interests often lie in making profit. Something as simple as making own brand fruit and veg loose would have a far greater impact than a privileged few using their own bags on the small range of ‘naked’ goods currently available. Supermarkets could make a change if they wanted to, but their limited cooperation means we as consumers are prevented from making a significant reduction in our use of plastic waste.
Similar criticism can be applied to local and central government when looking at the problem of city air pollution. If our city councils had more money from central government and public transport was state-owned, city networks could be centrally planned and function with both the environment and public health in mind. Not only would this have an amazing impact on lowering air pollution, but it would also increase social mobility by improving links to poorer areas of the city often neglected in city planning. If more affordable transport was better integrated with the cities’ needs, there would be no need for so many people to use private vehicles for their everyday lives.
Public ownership would also be ideal because the notion that ‘the market’ allows for the best solution to problems in society is totally dispelled when it comes to environmental issues such as pollution. This is because private businesses do not prioritise the public; they have the interests of their shareholders and executives in mind – those who can afford to live outside the heavily polluted inner-city areas. We cannot blame people who work long hours for little pay for not wanting to take 3 different buses and pay over the odds for an often-inconsistent service. We should be rallying behind local representatives demanding more funding for public and active transport. Central government has the power to grant funds to local councils in order to solve these problems, but instead they encourage private firms to take control of public transport absolving themselves of any responsibility for pollution in our cities.
In both of these examples, consumers aren’t blameless as we could all adopt lifestyles that are more eco-friendly. However, most of the problems we face can be boiled down to the corruption inherent to a capitalist society. Quite simply, if we attacked the capitalist system we could remove barriers that stop people from leading more environmentally sustainable lives.
Focusing on lifestyle changes is counterproductive and only deals with part of the problem. You can avoid as many carrier bags as you like, but if supermarkets are still dumping their leftover food and councils aren’t funding proper recycling plants, the real damage is still being done. If you do have the financial power or the free time that allows you to choose more environmentally friendly options in your daily life, I am by no means saying you shouldn’t. I am purely saying we should direct more of our energy towards those doing the extreme harm to our planet.
I believe the power dynamics under capitalism make it fundamentally difficult for individuals to have a significant impact to help the environment. This is not to say that individuals cannot make a difference, but I am cynical of the genuine influence of eco trends (such as going zero waste) as they remove the responsibility from big businesses and governments, putting it instead on the consumer and their personal greed.