Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'Noble Consumer' arguments are bad arguments

1.If you spend any time in online debates about climate change - and don't, it's all just spittle-flecked men in knee-high socks shouting at each other - you come across some dumb arguments. One of these is the Noble Consumer argument, a name I just made up but which is as good as any.

2. The crux of this argument is that you're not allowed to ask for changes to public policy around climate change unless you've attained some kind of purity as a private consumer first. For example, if you ever travel by plane, or ever drive a car, or use electricity generated from coal, you're not allowed to speak about - oh I don't know, just to make something up - a price on carbon, say, because you're a hypocrite. You should get those things in order first, then you're allowed to speak.

3. There's a few things going on in this argument. They're all wrong individually and together they're a kind of pie of wrongness: mmm, pie. Let's take them in turn.

4. First, it ignores the influence of political decisions upon markets. For a local example, here in Victoria citizens can veto a wind farm within two kilometers of their homes. As you can imagine, this skews the playing field against wind power somewhat, so there's less of it and it's more expensive. According to the Noble Consumer argument, you don't get to complain about this or try and change it until you're getting all your energy from renewables; if you can't afford to do that it's just a sign that you don't care enough. Bad you! You just ruined Christmas.

5. Second, it fails as a theory of change. In the above example, riddle me this: how many individual consumption decisions will it take to change that law about wind farms? The answer: those two things are profoundly disconnected, and it doesn't matter how many nice decisions you make as a private consumer. That law exists because of a political decision; getting it changed will require another political decision.

6. (That's not an argument against making changes to your personal consumption, by the way. It's just being clear about exactly what things your personal consumption can affect and what it can't.)

7. Third, and related, Noble Consumer arguments rely on a too-narrow idea of politics, which is the idea that we should understand our society only as a market and ourselves only as consumers making decisions in that market. We certainly are consumers, and we have power as consumers - witness the consumer boycott - but the idea that we're ONLY that strips from us all our other kinds of collective identity - as citizens, as members of communities and of ecosystems. That way of thinking of ourselves isolates us, turns us inwards and makes us feel individually bad for problems of collective action we could solve by doing the opposite of isolating ourselves. So let's fuck that idea off once and for all.

8. Fourth, making more-consistent personal consumption choices and paying attention to politics aren't mutually exclusive. The idea that you have to do one of them before you're allowed to do the other is full of shit. The idea that unless you're doing everything right, doing one thing is a waste of time: also full of shit.

9. Anyway! All of these things equal the Noble Consumer argument. Me I say it's just bullshit blame-shifting, designed to make you feel individually bad for your choices in a field skewed against you; it tries to take the political energy you'd use to level that field and change it into self-blame and guilt. It also blames you for not being able to afford what political decisions have made more expensive, which has the additional nasty side effect of making the poor feel worse than the rich, who can still afford the Nice Things or buy carbon offsets or some shit.

10. But when you're in a system where the choices you want to make are harder to make, or prohibitively expensive, because powerful players have stacked the deck against you, you don't have to blame yourself. You can, and should, try and level the playing field. And if you want to do this before, or instead of, fixing every little bodgy personal consumption decision you've ever made, you have my full support. Put your energy where you think it'll do the most good, and don't let the muppets bait you into feeling glum or beating yourself up any. Beat them up instead. (What? It's just a figure of speech.)

11. This has been a public service announcement. Have a nice day! X


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