Plastic Vegans

Commodity culture and its effects on nonhuman species

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash

The culture of consumption is rooted in commodification of experience and of basic human desires. These base needs — food, shelter, clothing — are intertwined with our internal desires for happiness, fulfilment and safety. Consumerism sells these desires back to us as objects with no necessary use but which we believe we cannot live without. This in turn emphasises a sense of entitlement; we believe that not only do we truly want these things, but that we deserve and need them. This distorts our sense of morality and justice through placement of the self, and the idealised image of the self, on a pedestal, placing our consumption at odds with not only our own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of our broader community, the environment, and the beings (human and non-human) who are exploited or marginalised through our consumptive habits.

“Advanced capitalism manufactured false desires; literally in the sense of ubiquitous advertising and the glorification of accumulated capital, and more broadly in the abstraction and reification of the more ephemeral experiences of authentic life into commodities.” — Situationist International

Consumer culture is a celebration of possessive individualism which cultivates isolation and selfishness. We are told that convenience is of central importance in our purchasing decision. Through the power of convenience these products work their way into our routines and we are removed from any meaningful engagement with the objects themselves, or of the waste and misery involved in the product life cycle. Our inflated sense of self and sense of urgency manufactures the conditions for poor decision making at the expense of others, and renders meaningful assessment of consumption near impossible without some form of forced evaluation. Why would you critique something that has been made so easy to adopt, and is against the interest of the producers to bring into question? This combination of aspirational marketing and commodification of our personal time hijacks our psychological tendencies, exploiting our weaknesses as biological beings into manufactured consent. We must confront these insidious attempts to sway us into meaningless consumerism at the expense of fellow beings.

A consequence of this is the enormous production of waste, especially non-biodegradable waste, is the destruction of ecosystems and the beings therein (including ourselves!). Other consequences are the destruction of habitats and societies, the indentured servitude of marginalised humans, the marginalisation of species as pests or nuisances when they threaten profit, and the commodification of the bodies of non-human species for consumption in our diets, our fashion, and our entertainment.

Has any social justice movement been won through consumerism?

It is not enough to simply be vegan, although it is a laudable and effective first action in challenging the hegemonic consumerist system we find ourselves in. Veganism is the moral baseline, however we must also assess other aspects of our consumption and participation which cause undue harms to others (human and non-human), and to the ecosystems exploited in our pursuit of things. Conscious effort to reduce our reliance on consumerist goods, even those which greenwash their image to appeal to our sensibilities, must be taken to challenge the inbuilt pressure to consume resources as a measure of success. Boycotting products is also not enough (but by no means do I criticise this step, it forms an important base for change), we must also protest and aim to dismantle the structures that enforce oppression and exploitation of all beings and the environment. Boycott veganism is insufficient to create structural change, and there are many scenarios in which a boycott cannot be achieved (such as life-saving medications — we must demand alternatives). Further, it must also be recognised that many individuals cannot meet this ‘moral baseline’ due to the structural inequalities and oppressions inherent in the capitalist systems — for example, food deserts and poverty where healthy food is commodified as luxury items. This is why we must aim to dismantle these systemic power structures, not merely carve out small spaces within them.

This is a lofty ideal but one that can be achieved through collective power. The actions of individuals who physically block access to old growth forests, resist oil pipes through land sacred to them, who liberate animals, and who challenge exploitation through legal measures are to be applauded. Media and corporate condemnation of these individuals as ‘nuisances’ or even as criminals is a concerted effort to prevent collective action [1]. Capitalism encourages us to live in a world of illusions in which inconvenient truths are silenced and unpopular ideas suppressed, and we are forced to live in constant competition with each other. Those who benefit from systems of oppression and exploitation present those systems as natural, appropriate and humane. They work to deflect criticism of their power, attacking those who dissent by trying to undermine, trivialise and marginalise their voices.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Interested in doing your part? Here are some suggestions. There are many of us who cannot achieve all of these, but wherever you have the privilege and capacity to do so, please try. You are helping not only yourself, but also those who are less fortunate and suffer greatly under our current structures.

  • Go vegan, and even better, be a highly conscious vegan who does not rely on convenience products.
  • Refuse to participate in consumer culture wherever possible. Do not purchase clothing, electronics, or other aspirational goods simply because they are viewed as status or signalling objects. Critically assess your actual needs and purchase only when truly necessary, preferably from second hand stores. If you can, trade with another person or join a buy-nothing group.
  • Aim to reduce your waste wherever possible. This includes composting and sharing unwanted items, refusing products which generate unnecessary waste (e.g. packaging, single use cutlery)
  • Choose ecologically sound modes of transport wherever possible. A bicycle can transport you substantial distances and for many of us who are able-bodied, the only limitation is our unwillingness to try. If this is not feasible for your situation, public transport is an excellent option. Infrastructure for the common social good requires a certain critical mass to be effective and advocacy from motivated individuals can expand the access to these services to those most in need.
  • Establish local bartering if possible.
  • Participate in community gardens and produce as much of your own produce as possible.
  • Attend protests, join organisations that represent your causes and who are fighting pillars of oppression.
  • Be intersectional. This is mandatory. The oppression of marginalised beings, including non-humans, must end. We aim for total liberation.

Reference:

1. Constructing Ecoterrorism: Capitalism, Speciesism and Animal Rights by John Sorenson

Further reading:

Rethink Your Understanding of Veganism

A Critique of Consumption-Centered Veganism

Boycott veganism

The lines are being drawn: The case for a divided animal movement