Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?

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We’re celebrating Earth Day with this week’s selection, from Global Environmental Politics.


“Green apartment” by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?

Global Environmental Politics
Volume 1 | Issue 3 | August 2001 
Authors: Michael F. Maniates

When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized,
there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political
power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and inºuence
in society — to, in other words, ‘think institutionally.’

Abstract

An increasingly dominant, largely American response to the contemporary environmental crisis understands environmental degradation as the product of individual shortcomings and finds solutions in enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice. Several forces promote this process of individualization, including the historical baggage of mainstream environmentalism, the core tenets of liberalism, the dynamic ability of capitalism to commodify dissent, and the relatively recent rise of global environmental threats to human prosperity. The result is to narrow our collective ability to imagine and pursue a variety of productive responses to the environmental problems before us. When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society. Confronting consumption requires individuals to understand themselves not primarily as consumers but rather as citizens in a participatory democracy, working together to change broader policy and larger social institutions. It also requires linking explorations of consumption to politically charged issues that challenge the political imagination.

Excerpt

For the lack of a better term, call this response the individualization of responsibility. When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society — to, in other words, “think institutionally.” Instead, the serious work of confronting the threatening socio-environmental processes that The Lorax so ably illuminates falls to individuals, acting alone, usually as consumers. We are individualizing responsibility when we agonize over the “paper or plastic” choice at the checkout counter, knowing somehow that neither is right given larger institutions and social structures. We think aloud with the neighbor over the back fence about whether we should buy the new Honda or Toyota hybrid-engine automobile now or wait a few years until they work the kinks out, when really what we wish for is clean, efficient, and effective public transportation of the sort we read about in science action novels when we were young — but which we can’t vote for with our consumer dollars since, for reasons rooted in power and politics, it’s not for sale. So we ponder the “energy stickers” on the ultra-efficient appliances at Sears, we diligently compost our kitchen waste, we try to ignore the high initial cost and buy a few compact-fluorescent lightbulbs. We read spirited reports in the New York Times Magazine on the pros and cons of recycling while sipping our coffee, study carefully the merits of this and that environmental group so as to properly decide upon the destination of our small annual donation, and meticulously sort our recyclables. And now an increasing number of us are confronted by opportunistic green-power providers who urge us to “save the planet” by buying their “green electricity” — while doing little to actually increase the quantity of electricity generated from renewable resources. (33)

It’s more than coincidental that as our collective perception of environmental
problems has become more global, our prevailing way of framing environmental problem-solving has become more individualized. In the end, individualizing responsibility does not work — you can’t plant a tree to save the world — and as citizens and consumers slowly come to discover this fact their cynicism about social change will only grow: “you mean after fifteen years of washing out these crummy jars and recycling them, environmental problems are still getting worse — geesh, what’s the use?” Individualization, by implying that any action beyond the private and the consumptive is irrelevant, insulates people from the empowering experiences and political lessons of collective struggle for social change and reinforces corrosive myths about the difficulties of public life. By legitimating notions of consumer sovereignty and a self-balancing and autonomous market, it also diverts attention from political arenas that matter. In this way, individualization is both a symptom and a source of waning citizen capacities to participate meaningfully in processes of social change. If consumption, in all its complexity, is to be confronted, the forces that systematically individualize responsibility for environmental degradation must be challenged.(44)

Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” will be freely available from April 20th to April 26th on the MIT Press website.