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The Limits of Political Consumerism

January 23, 2013

paper_or_plastic-scncI’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the limits of consumerism as an avenue for political change, particularly in the context of the food movement. Today, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Michael Maniates of Allegheny College, whose presentation on green consumerism and the limits of particular theories of social change helped to catalyze some of my own thinking on the topic.

Maniates’ current work focuses on thinking about what a high prosperity, low consumption world might look like, and outlining what policies might drive this at the macro and micro levels. The challenge, he asserts, is a particular (and currently dominant) model of political agency around the environment centers on a framing of environmentalism that conflates political change with individual choice and consumerism. Saving the environment, in other words, becomes as simple as choosing between paper and plastic. The broader context (social and political systems, for example) is effectively cut off as an arena for contestation. Further, this framing necessarily leads to, as Maniates put it, a “politics of guilt” in which individual failings are the root cause of environmental challenges and crisis becomes the primary motivation for individual action.

This discussion made a lot of sense to me, and relates closely to several critiques I’ve raised of alternative food movements. It’s the Michael Pollan model of political agency…buy this apple (instead of that apple) and change the world.

Such a model in the context of the food movement is highly problematic. It assumes a particular kind of identity politics that precludes participation by some individuals. Julie Guthman (at UC Santa Cruz) and Rachael Slocum (at St Cloud State University) have done some amazing work analyzing the functioning of farmers markets as white spaces and the framing of the “food question” as one of education. (See, for example, Guthman’s “If Only They Knew…”  and Slocum’s “Whiteness, Space, and Alternative Food Practice“) for more). This framing also carries strong gender and class biases, privileging a sort of political agency ultimately defined by its white, middle class frame.

The question, of course, is what would an alternative food movement cognizant of the dynamics of multiple intersecting layers of oppression and defined not in the “politics of guilt” or built around a system of “green capitalism” look like?

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