Response: Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals

Ronan Loughney
Nov 8 · 6 min read

A response to — https://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2017/jul/17/neoliberalism-has-conned-us-into-fighting-climate-change-as-individuals

Broadly, I’m in agreement with this article. If we are to win the fight against climate change, collective political action is necessary, individual consumer choices will do nothing on their own, and trying to overturn the negative effects of a system through the prevailing mechanisms of that system is doomed to failure. However, I want to make a clear shift in point of emphasis from the article’s, which I think is relevant to other progressive movements for change.

The article’s argument is that we should not think of ourselves as individuals, and that it is Neoliberalism which has conned us into thinking as such, and I take issue with both.

Before condemning the radical individualism that is central to the Neoliberalist project, it is important to understand something of its origins. To say that Neoliberalism and capitalism have made people feel personally responsible for ‘the structural problems of an exploitative system’ is simplistic and misleading. Personal responsibility persists regardless of systemic issues, and this notion far predates capitalism, based on fundamental facts of existence, rather than superimposed ideologies. Neoliberalism has its philosophical origins in the call for sovereign responsibility espoused from Ayn Rand all the way back to Socrates. Although of course there is an enormous gulf between Rand’s ruthless Libertarianism and Socrates’s exposition of the just soul, the basic tenet is the same: whatever the problems in the external world, the only thing we can truly control and take responsibility for is our internal world. We should remember that the problems of the external world are merely extensions of the problems each of us hold within ourselves, and so if we are looking for a place to start to fix the world, we must start within.

Neoliberalism has, of course, both exploited and ignored these philosophical foundations — responsibility, integrity, authenticity — and it would only be the most shameless of its proponents who would dare argue that its current manifestation actualises these noble origins. It has also narrowly focused on individuals as rational and selfish, which ignores so many of humanity’s other characteristics that it is a wonder such a notion was ever able to establish itself. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater though. Individuals are the fundamental unit of moral action, and we cannot forget that any change must begin not only with them but in them.

This is important because, often in contrast to the philosophical project of the sovereign individual, post-modern, intersectional movements have made it more common to think of the individual simply as a product of overlapping structures and systems. Rather than looking within, we instead blame a system, as if it is something separate and antagonistic to us. Neither picturing us as discrete individuals, nor as entirely the product of external forces, is particularly useful when thinking about our roles in society. Our intersectional identity defines the platform from which our individual project is launched; it is the cards we are dealt. But we still play the cards.

It is of course a privilege granted to those who have benefitted most from our current political and economic system to have the space to address their internal world. Such inequality must be addressed, I am merely questioning the initial foundations we launch our attempts from. That is, I agree that the most important individual action we can take is to come together as a collective and create pressure on institutions, primarily government, to bring about a change in that system. But if we do not address our complicity in the system, we will simply create a facsimile of the system we replace. As George Monbiot alluded to in his appearance on the Elephant podcast[1], by blaming the system entirely, we forget our part within it and so are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Individual consumer choices are not, of course, equivalent to individual moral behaviour. But, just as with how we vote and agitate politically, the jobs we choose and the internal biases we check, such choices are reflective of our willingness to accept responsibility for the situation we all find ourselves within.

Similarly, I do not mean to deny that there are powerful, Machiavellian forces (and people!) at work that aim to mislead and divide us, from fossil fuel companies spreading misinformation about climate change to politicians who accept funding for their campaigns and in return further disseminate and support these ideas. These forces must be checked, and we need grassroots, direct action to topple the system which has allowed such corruption to breed. But if we see these people as other than ourselves, as something we stand against, rather than as existing at one end of a spectrum on which we all exist, nothing substantial will change.

It is important to understand therefore that a response to the ecological crisis runs deeper than a call for government or system change, and is, too, a call for the enlightenment of the individual as constitutive of that system. Blaming only identifies part of the problem, we must go into ourselves. Evil is not what divides good people from bad, but one side of a battle people fight within. The reason we have reached this point of emergency is because we have all, on some level, willingly allowed ourselves to reach this point. Yes, we have been coerced, lied to, tricked and ignored, but we have always had a choice. No one has held a gun against our heads and made us overfly, overeat and overbuy: we have done it because we have wanted to. Neoliberalism has not exploited tendencies that do not exist within us, but rather those tendencies we do not want to identify ourselves with: greed, impatience, the fetishisation of comfort. We are angry not only at this system and those who have exploited it, but at ourselves for our personal lapses in resisting it.

If we worry that we will become exhausted by taking constant micro-actions, remember it is also exhausting on a much more subtle and destructive level to maintain the cognitive dissonance inherent in decrying inaction from our governments without implementing this action ourselves. Social Psychology tells us that we desire consistency almost above all else, and will often change our behaviours to fall in line with our words and vice versa. We should make sure our actions are consistent with our demands therefore, or risk that our inaction fizzles out to our demands. Additionally, consider the increased credibility and influence those who maintain full consistency in their actions have, such as Greta Thunberg, who refuses to fly or buy new clothes. This should not set a standard of action we cannot achieve, but rather act as a source of inspiration. The idea is not to beat yourself up when you fail, but to remember with a smile that a life of harmony between thought and action is a good life, and to aim for it whenever possible.

We are more than the sum of our individual actions, but our collective strength will multiply in size exponentially if we each realise our own inherent strength concurrently. There is no stronger marker of character than integrity, and only by taking steps to address the climate crisis in our private, as well as public, lives can we achieve this. It is crucial to put pressure on the institutions sustaining this exploitative system, but what we will construct in its place will be determined by the integrity of the individuals who bring about the change we need.

[1] Episode ‘Climate Change is Bigger Than Capitalism’

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