Slate sums up the general public reaction to the Live Earth concerts this past weekend: Lame Earth. Both the event itself and the criticism of it seemed off the mark to me. From the little bit I saw and what I’ve read in the coverage, the actual environmental movement seemed largely absent from the consciousness-raising event. Organizing for collective action is by far the most effective way for people to make a difference—yes, even more so than changing out those incandescent bulbs. But although there are plenty of grassroots organizations out there that can help people make a difference, there didn’t seem to be much of a presence.
Rather than focusing on that angle, of course, the mainstream media seemed much more interested in the amount of electricity and number of paper plates consumed during the event. Our own Mike Brune appeared on CNN today on the Glenn Beck Program—the host was more apparently more interested in bovine flatulence (and the fact that Live Earth organizers didn’t exhort the audience to become vegetarians) than in why we should stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
Both of the things that bother me about the whole affair—the lack of real grassroots organizing at the event and the media focus on the resources consumed during the event itself—stem from the same problem in popular environmental consciousness; namely, that many people equate the environmental movement with the movement toward “green” consumerism.
Now, don’t get me wrong: the fact that consumers now value environmentally friendly choices (and that corporations feel obliged to offer them) is a good thing. It isn’t, however, good enough. While it might be true that “if everyone did x, we would have the benefit of x multiplied across the entire population,” the fact is that “everyone doing x” as individual consumers is not a realistic plan, nor would it even be sufficient to prevent environmental catastrophe (at least not for any value of x that each consumer would find acceptable). Limiting the role of the public to the cumulative effect of individual purchasing decisions in the market means that power to make change is limited to the sum of their individual actions.
We can’t count on a “free market” to address the environmental crisis, no matter how concerned individual consumers become. For one thing, it’s very easy for corporations to put one over on consumers in the absence of accountability groups (like RAN) and government regulation. It’s also important to remember that markets are regulatory spaces, created by and for the people that they serve. Left to their own devices, the private companies that burn coal to generate electricity would happily externalize the environmental cost of their activity until we’re all under water. Do you want to wait around for the market to solve that one?
Instead, people need to organize—through unions, governments, and NGOs—into groups that have more influence than the sum of their parts. There’s no way we could convince coal power plants to adopt a voluntary carbon tax. We can’t each decide to take the bus if no one gets together to create public transportation. And no matter how many times we fill our own sack with groceries, the store is unlikely to stop handing out plastic bags until a law is passed. In other words, structures like governments and advocacy groups exist for a reason: so that we are better able to make collective decisions.