Maniates Reading

(Ctools) Maniates, Michael, “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” pp. 43-66 in Princen, Maniates, Conca, Confronting Consumption (2002).

Take-away messages:

The author opens by describing the contemporary environmental obsession with the Dr. Seuss story The Lorax. He uses this example to suggest its popularity is due to an increasingly dominant American response to the environmental crisis which he refers to as individualization of responsibility.

His issue with this phenomena is that when responsibility is individualized it leaves little room to deeply reflect on the role institutions play in environmental issues as well as the magnitude of the solutions suggested to deal with environmental ills. Fixing the responsibility on the consumer/individual "cloaks the important dimensions of power and culpability." His issue with this individualization of responsibility is well stated in the his quote of Peter Montague. “What I notice here is the complete absence of any ideas commensurate with the size and nature of the problems faced by the world's environment."

He ascribes this individualization of responsibility both to the norms established during the Reagan administration of “personal responsibility, corporate initiative and limited government” but also to the technocratic nature, core liberal tenets, and non-confrontational nature of contemporary environmentalism. It’s all about conflict free “win-win’ strategies for addressing environmental issues, which fail “to raise deeper issues that more fundamentally engage the dynamics of environmental degradation." He also credits the incredible ability of capitalism to commodify dissent and sell it back to the dissenters.

Maniates goes on to imply that this individualization has caused Americans to by able to only perceive themselves as consumers as opposed to citizens who can shape and alter the institutional arrangements that drive their consumption. He purports that there is also a growing alienation with processes of citizen-based action and therefore consumption has come to represent social action.

The individualization of responsibility of environmental issues has caused a piecemeal and at times counterproductive effort on the environmental front. It has simply continued to drive up consumption as long as it is “green.” Think of the palm oil example and the eradication of orangutan habitat in Indonesia.

The Better Mouse Trap Theory of Social Change: “A struggle free eco-revolution, made possible by the combination of technological innovations and consumer choices.”

The BMTT is a social theory created by Langdon Winner a political scientist. This theory was coined in response to a study of the demise of the 1970’s environmental technology movement. This movement's failure was a function of the intrinsic tension between the centralizing forces of a capitalistic system and the decentralizing localism of the technologies being employed. The movement of the 1970’s failed to acknowledge or deal with the larger institutions that were shaping public consumption.

"Individualizing responsibility does not work—you cannot plant a tree to save the world—and as citizens and consumers slowly come to discover this fact their cynicism about social change will only grow"

Issues with IPAT

"IPAT may be physically indisputable. But it is politically naive." IPAT also distributes blame so widely such that when everything is so “connected” it creates a confusion on how to intervene and paralyzes any ability to act in a coordinated, planned manner. IPAT does not question agencies, institutions, political power or collective action.

“It ignores the manipulation, the oppression, the profits. It ignores a fact that natural scientists have a hard time quantifying and therefore don't like to talk about, economic and political power."- Donella Meadows

An alternative equation: IWAC

Impact = Quality of Work x meaningful consumption Alternatives x political Creativity

Work: embraces conversations abut job security, worker satisfaction, downsizing, overtime and corporate responsibility. The more powerless one feels at work, the more one is inclined to assert power as a consumer.

Alternative Consumptions: embraces the fact that the public's failure to embrace sustainable technologies has more to do with institutional structures that restrict the aggressive development and wide dissemination of sustainable technologies than with errant consumer choice.

Creativity: imagination. Ideas and images and those who package and broker them wield considerable power. Social movements are driven by imagination. Once an idea is labeled as "realistic" or "idealistic," if labeled as "idealistic" it is taken to be impossible or impractical and in other words can no longer serve as a staging ground for struggle.

Conclusions - to quote the author:

“Individual consumption choices are environmentally important, but their control over these choices is constrained, shaped, and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective action, as opposed to individual consumer behavior.”

“To many, an environmentalism of 'plant a tree, save the world' appears to be apolitical and non-confrontational, thus ripe for success. Such an approach is anything but, insofar as it works to constrain our imagination about what is possible and what is worth working toward. It is time for those who hope for renewed and rich discussion about “the consumption problem” to come to grips with this narrowing of the collective imagination and the growing individualization of responsibility that drives it, and to grapple intently with ways of reversing the tide.”