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Your Personal Consumption Choices Can’t Save the Planet: We Have to Confront Capitalism

Your Personal Consumption Choices Can’t Save the Planet: We Have to Confront Capitalism

Kate Aronoff

New York Magazine’s latest 7,000-word cover story about climate change freaked a lot of people out. Like the reality of climate change itself, the story is depressing. Author David Wallace-Wells—collating several academic papers and interviews with climate scientists—meticulously lays out the possibility of melting ice caps releasing literal plagues, our air becoming unbreathable and geopolitics devolving into endless war.


This seems to be an increasing theme among climate activists - no personal action or sacrifice is needed - only demand it from others. It is not going to work. Public transit is not going to expand unless more people use the service that is available even if there is some inconvenience. Airlines are not going to reduce scheduled flights unless more people don’t fly. More efficient forms of personal transportation, heating, lighting and essential appliances and are not going to become widely available and cheaper unless there is demand.

And if Ms. Aranoff is going to imply that a majority of global CO2 emissions are coming from the one-percent and that those of the US middle class (who emit more than twice the CO2 as a middle-class European) do not matter, she really needs to provide data to demonstrate that. Their individual carbon footprints are no doubt very large - but there is also far fewer of them.

And on the more philosophical level, it is important to practice what we preach. Apparently modern activists regard our old slogan “be the change you want to see” as quaint.

And enough already with this false dichotomy. One can both make personal lifestyle decisions, and organize to change policy and the broader economy at the same time.

(And as a suggested correction to the caption - all of that stuff in the accompanying picture is condensed water vapor, not smoke. Volcanic Iceland generates about 30% electricity from geothermal steam - the rest from hydro. Geothermal steam also provides 90 percent of hot water and heating.)


It’s socialism or barbarism.


I agree. Our personal consumption choices can make a difference and are part of an overall strategy of change. Personal consumption is part of the collective culture. When enough of us adopt lower consumption strategies, it becomes more socially unacceptable to over consume and that, in turn, makes the excesses of the 1 percent all the more blatant and socially unacceptable. If we can’t change, it’s more than a little hypocritical and pointless to expect the 1% to change.

Perceptions pro and con on individual changes in consumption speaks to Jevon’s paradox. I tend to be strongly ‘pro’ because the greater the range of personal experience in alternatives by choice, the stronger and more diverse the base for creative intervention and autonomy from false claims of necessity by market elements. If there is anything beneficent about homo sapiens sapiens, its that awareness implied by the second sapiens. Hey, redundancies are like backbone to systems and just as repetition under an advertising volcano covers you in that stuff, repetition of awareness of awareness gives one proverbial wings.
DEGROWTH - a vocabulary for a new era is an often overlooked gem and a portion has been uploaded to the free Academia site

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Thank you Ms.Aronoff, for a splash of ice melt water to remind people that we need civilization wide changes to be made not really individual lifestyle changes (though they help a little). As we speak countries, states and municipalities are beginning the shift off fossil fuels by enacting the banning the manufacture and sale of gasoline/diesel vehicles. That desperately needed change over along with the implementation of large scale solar and wind derived energy etc. is what will save the planet not whether we eat a peanut butter sandwich on meatless Wednesday. Car pooling won’t save us but switching to an electric vehicle car pooling will.

This article makes another point by reminding us that it is not the 99% but it is the 1%! A major stockholder in a fossil fuel company is not a member of the 99%. The people who bribe our legislators and advocate near suicidal policies like maintaining the wide scale use of fossil fuels are not low income workers. They are the most wealthy and politically influential elite across the planet.

This article shows us that the Koch brothers et al will deny global warming or say that it is everybody’s fault but they will not admit their role. So when people say we need life style changes to prevent global warming maybe they need to that maybe the 1% need a life style change. Certainly they need to become environmentally responsible.

There is nothing wrong with being rich but there is a lot wrong with it if your wealth derives from fossil fuel use! We won’t save our future in time by individual eco choices but we will if we can make the really big changes that are necessary. For the first time these large scale changes like electric cars instead of gasoline powered ones are possible. The change over is starting to happen as states and nations set dates in the near future to ban gasoline vehicles.

We need to embrace the victories that we all need and stop playing that blame game about everybody is equally responsible. Trump is not an environmentalist. It is not his personal lifestyle that matters as just one person but it is his policies and initiatives as our president that do.

Far too many people come to the debate chanting their personal causes like they did for decades. Vegetarians tell everybody that not eating meat will save the planet. They are right about how much the meat industry contributes to environmental destruction but so many are oblivious that it is impossible to get the world to stop eating meat in time to save our environment. They help by educating people to reduce their meat consumption but they fail to admit that they won’t save us by insisting on a world wide end to eating meat which simply wouldn’t happen in a logical time frame!

There are numerous things that people can do personally to help reduce humanity’s environmental impact but the most that concerned citizens can do for the environment would be to tackle those 100 corporations that really are the main cause of global warming.


X system good, Y system bad. I get it, ideology is where it starts.

Here is what is missing from the system.

Science has established what harms the eco-system, and what manufacturing methodology injects measurable harm into our environment, and which life style, whether it be air conditioning or mono-culture farming, impact the planet negatively. This has been in the human vocabulary for at least fifteen years.

No device has been constructed to counter the continued use of these flawed methods. Does anyone here think that the pseudo socialist governments of China and Russia have tried to reduce implementation of these destructive technologies? Have the so called spiritually awakened eastern cultures resisted the onslaught?

Quite the contrary. The human conscience does not have a chance against the narcissistic superiority fueled egotistic bully.

If you, armed with the full spectrum of scientific evidence, walked up to polluters and asked them to stop, would they? If you went to the court with the obvious co relation of local folk dying from the direct impacts, would you get a hearing? The bullies own the American Judicial system. I believe it is also the case in most technologically advanced countries, and some upcoming super powers such as China and India.

Why does the person who is polluting do so? Profit/Greed? Self promotion and inter-generational monetary security? Self sustenance through dominance and alpha male natural selection? Can all of these be subverted by a truly accountable egalitarian system?

I would like to believe so. More on that some other time.

If a handful of people are responsible for 71% of the planet’s toxins/destructive patterns, then these people need to be identified, their actions publicized and quarantined. Where is that report, and suggested action?


Although I’m sympathetic with the points made here, it lets most of us off too easily. The Carbon Majors report Aronoff cites puts the onus for fossil fuels on fossil fuel companies. So, if you go and fill your gas guzzler and toodle around, you’re off the hook. Needless to say, it’s more complicated than that.

I agree with Aronoff that we not only need to clean up our personal act, we also need a democratic revolution to displace the ogres who run this (and other 1st world) countries. But that’s still not enough. Globally, 1st world consumption accounts for the lion’s share of GHG emissions. If everyone lived like the folks in even the cleanest 1st world country, it would take several Earths to accommodate us.

The Happy Planet Index captures this. It’s the ratio of well-being to consumption. The top country is…Costa Rica. The closest 1st world country, Norway, is 12th on the list.

Live simply that others may simply live…and bring on the (non-violent) revolution!


When I read this STUFF no wonder people tune out.-----What is selling big in the US today—BIG TRUCKS! There is a real disconnect in what people do and the environment. And yes having fewer KIDS is the one answer in changing direction-----and this needs to happen world wide. Not by force but making people aware that we live on a limited planet-----and the ahole rich need to stop using war as a way to cut population growth.

Please understand we do not live in a capitalist country–the US-or a socialist country-----its a screwed up mixed economy that works for the wealthy. And I really wish people would put forth the real word that needs to be understood------THE COMMONS-when people understand that they are the owners and common people have a responsibility to protect water,land,air, and natural resources-this is when we will have real change-people are brainwashed into thinking that only people with money have the power------because we are fed this crap every day.


Yes, and what I find peculiar is that these latter-day climate activists criticizing lifestyle change is that they assume it is about bourgeois consumption choices (Nissan LEAF’s and the like) instead of the choice to not consume. CO2 emissions by households are relatively low compared to the CO2 emissions of manufacturing and commercial facilities and transportation - so consuming less frivolous stuff is important.

And yes, I will continue to complain when activists hold meetings or organize buses to protests in DC or Harrisburg at locations that are inaccessible by public transit and/or bicycle.

Jevon’s paradox (which before I heard about it I already had noticed it - calling it the “Prius Effect”) refers to efficiency improvements without any other economic changes. Obviously, most kinds energy efficiency improvements have to be accompanied by policies that raise the price of the energy source or the energy price will only go down and the more efficient thing will be used more - for no net savings.

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Individual choices do matter but in the grand scheme of things the choices made have to on a grand scale and only governments can make that happen. I say that until the destructive forces, real and side effects, of the military are addressed nothing will really happen toward a comprehensive change of all things needed to ensure species survivability; human and otherwise. This is up to governments and judging from all the destructive forces leveled on regular folks they don’t really give a rats ass about people. Things one can do to help: Don’t have children or limit it to one child; don’t fly; drive autos only after planing carefully to include all chores to be done with one trip; get electric or hybrid cars; dump your boats, RV’s, and then live as if your life depended on saving as much energy as possible, because it does. Yell as loud as you can; STOP MURDERING EARTH and HER CHILDREN!!

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Feedback loops now feeding back. I’m not advocating for panic. Just for reality.

Like this reality: cheap gas prices have spurred sales of trucks and SUVs.

Like this reality:


Capitalism depends on division. As human beings wake up, as more and more are doing thanks to people like Eckhart Tolle, division evaporates. A person who wakes up sees reality for what it is, not the dumbed-down version available to scrubbed brains. And that’s how the world will change. Not a shot fired. Heaven on Earth is still readily available. Within every person on the planet.


All our little bitty changes are small fish when there’s larger fish that need to be fried. Sure, as you point out the small fish add up to something but that total does not equal the civilization sized large fish. This article indicates the need to focus on the large fish; although, I think the article could have done a better job at making that indication. I wanted to see some numbers and this article didn’t present any. Poor people making their itty bitty changes won’t make enough of a difference no matter how much you personally believe it to be important.

Things have gotten worse despite governments, politicians, religion, economists, scientists, technology, etc. Nobody is going to save us except ourselves:

Direct Democracy

When seals overrun San Francisco Bay threatening marine diversity, nature sends predatory white sharks to cull them.

When elk overrun Yellowstone threatening riparian diversity, nature wants predatory wolves to cull them.

When deer overrun a forest and threaten tree diversity, nature sends predators to cull them.

When monocultures threaten plant diversity, nature sends crop diseases to cull them.

When people overrun the world, nature sends war, drought, pandemics, famine and environmental catastrophes to cull them.

Nature wants diversity and sustainable equilibrium between species

Capitalists want to grow forever in unsustainable monoculture.

When nature produced capitalism, presumably to help separate out the fittest, it must not have considered that it would end up destroying all its work.

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