THINGS I NEVER HAD AN ANSWER TO – part 2

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good communicator. I am weak in debates, getting lost in my own arguments, because I do not have the facts nor the figures ready to impress people. Facts and figures, is what you need, in order to be convincing. Time, on the other hand, to develop my argument and look up the exact numbers and ways to express myself, is what I need.

There are these situations in which I get annoyed, mainly because someone is coming with an argument I partly disagree with, but I cannot truly explain why. I tend to lose discussions, mainly because I cannot find the right words to explain what I actually mean. In the past few years, there have been several statements made by various people, that I disagree with, but never could explain exactly why.

My goal is to slowly but gradually collect these statements, and write down what my answer to those statements is, after having given myself the time to think about it from several perspectives: a process of considering, reconsidering, reading, trying to remember and learning.

I have therefore decided to start a series with statements that I consider to be false, and what my answer to them would be.
Things I never had an answer to, until now. Part 2:

“You say we have to consume less, but you consume a lot yourself too.”

Yes, you are right. I admit it. In my previous blog post, I rounded up by saying that we should start by make us in the West to buy less, to buy locally produced (including locally produced raw materials) and making most of it yourself.
What I did not realise by saying this, is that I draw the topic of a greener future into the private sphere, making it a private matter and thus a private responsibility, by buying the right products instead. And guess what? I even made it a women’s matter, because women are the greatest consumers, both for themselves, as for the household.

I have been reading a 1993 article by Catriona Sandilands recently, and I realised how wrong I was. Even though I would strongly recommend you to read the whole article yourself here – seriously, it is only three pages, but extremely powerful, well written and still as relevant as ever – I would like to share a couple of main insights with you, that the article has given me.

First of all: yes, consumers have a power, to a certain extend, to change the production market. If we all together decide not to buy products anymore that have been produced under terrible circumstances (if we already have the possibility to find out about the production process, since the market is terribly opaque) , the demand vanishes, and the company might stop producing it, or might try to change its production process. However, as Sandilands points out, there are two main problems with this statement, both for environmentalist and feminist politics:

  1. “Environmental privatization depoliticizes environmental problems,
  2. and [it] does so in the company of a very conservative notion of gender.” (Sandilands 1993: 45)

 

Depoliticising environmental problems

Alright, you might think: how does privatisation of environmental problems work depoliticising?
Well, as you might already have filled in yourself: if buying and consuming better (read: “green”) products, you are doing morally ‘good’. Besides the fact that you then can point your finger at people that do not buy ‘well’ (blaming and shaming them for being morally inferior), you give people the idea, as Sandilands points out, that “if you buy this product, you can help to save the world” (ibidem).

This idea gives, of course, a nice ground for companies to label there products as eco-friendly. The question remains ifthese products in fact are eco-friendly, or that the products only are labelled as such, based on empty promises. To quote Sandilands once again: “Through this packaging, ‘green’ products attempt to elevate the act of buying into some sort of moral or political act, even though buying is actually part of the problem, and even though the act of consuming could hardly be said to be an act of salvation (although, ‘salvation through consumption’ is certainly part of the package we are being sold).” This package, this green lifestyle is then sold to us as something morally good, making it a private responsibility, and thus, making it no longer necessary to bring up the point of environmental problems on the political agenda, since people have to work on it themselves. “In short, environmental politics are not, and cannot be, simply a question of lifestyle,” Sandilands says.

 

The gender aspect of environmental problems

As I already wrote, women are the main consumers for both themselves as for their households. They buy most of the household products such as washing detergents, soap and cleaning products. This household and the family environments are considered to be “woman’s terrain”.

So the circle closes here: women are supposed to be more responsible for the household, the private sphere, and it is there where the change has to be made in order to change to a more “green” world. However, as Sandilands points out, this change “is only minor alteration, well within the parameters of the market, and well within the confines of patriarchal constructions of women” (idem: 46-47).

“By valorizing the household as the primary locus of change, the trend toward environmental privatization ends up reifying a very conservative (not to mention white and middle-class) notion of womanhood, as if this concept of woman were an ideal toward which all environmentally concerned women should aspire” (idem: 47).

 

Okay, so what now?

Now we know that privatisation of environmental problems both creates the pointing of fingers, depolitisation of the problem ánd gender issues. Does that mean we should not watch at all, what we are buying? Maybe it is still important to keep an eye on what to buy, but it is not as simple as I thought at first. I am guilty of pointing my moral finger to others.

Sandilands does not truly give any ways to politicise the issue again, pulling it back from the private sphere into the political sphere. It would probably be important to keep on writing and fighting about it through NGO’s and (semi-)governmental organisations in order to show the importance of political action and cooperation to change the system.

How can we then make this change? Well, some personal ideas I have been thinking about include:

  • Demanding work and school canteens to serve less meat, more (local) vegetables and beans. This draws the personal choice away from the individual.
  • Supporting human rights organisations that work for good working circumstances for the currently exploited.
  • Education (? – The question remains how it then is taught, to make sure it isn’t being taught as an individual responsibility to make the change…)
  • Ever since buying ‘green’ is a privilege for the people that are rather well off, and since buying habits do have a certain effect on the demand for products, demanding a critical view on the taxation system, in order to make ‘good’ foods available for all income levels, would still be a good option, I believe. It will at least take the finger pointing to them who are not able to buy the often more expensive eco-friendly away to a certain level, making it from an individual responsibility to spend money on ‘saving the planet’, to something also people that are not aware of the issue, or people who have to watch the price of every product, can do.

This list is by far not complete, nor perfect. These are just examples I have been thinking about. If you have any concrete examples, I’d love to hear about them!

So yes.. I consume a lot myself too. However, pointing fingers at each other does not solve the initial problem. We have to repoliticise the issue in order to make this an issue of us all again.

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