Halina Brown: Sustainable Consumption Up Close and Personal

Most of my friends are concerned about climate change and support the idea of appropriate government interventions. That is probably true for many SCORAI listserv subscribers. But how often do we engage with these friends in conversations about sustainable consumption? In my case: rarely. I do not do it because I do not want to sound preachy or get the conversation too serious. My recent experience was, therefore, a real eye opener.

My interlocutor was a close friend who considers herself a strongly committed environmentalist. We have a long history of talking politics and speaking openly about difficult personal topics. Our recent conversation focused on citizen responsibility and values. The friend proclaimed that she does her citizen best for the environment, pointing to her political activism on behalf of left-leaning politicians and the recent investment in new windows in her huge sprawling drafty house where she lives alone. In a moment of contrariness, instead of biting my tongue I retorded that neither she nor anyone in our shared social circle (definitely including me) is, in fact, doing their best. Doing our best would require that we examine our fundamental lifestyle choices: living in huge houses, flying all over the world, driving large cars, keeping vacation homes. In my naiveté, I thought that my friend and I would embark on a conversation about it. Truth be told, I was hoping to jointly commiserate about how difficult it is to change these high impact lifestyles when we can afford them and while the logic of personal finances, institutional rules, prevailing norms and accepted social practices all favour them. This is what I was looking for but this is not what happened. My friend got agitated, I suspect that she thought of me as judgmental, she stated that she cannot imagine living differently from the way she grew up, and the conversation abruptly ended.

So what is our citizen responsibility and how do we exercise it? Is it enough to do research, write, teach, and give talks about sustainable consumption? This is what we do best but is it the best we can do? And if I cannot even engage a close friend in this conversation, to whom and how do I talk about it?

4 thoughts on “Halina Brown: Sustainable Consumption Up Close and Personal

  • I recently has a similar experience, Halina. My family was invited to a holiday party by my brother-in-law. My wife and I responded that we’d love to attend, but that we were trying to hard to avoid the materialistic trappings of the holiday season and we’d prefer to avoid the huge extended family gift exchange extravaganza. My BIL took immediate offense and said that we only wanted to avoid giving gifts to HIS family. I took the reigns and wrote him a long email expressing my dismay over the state of the environment and that we were struggling (and failing, like you!) to reduce our impact. I was met with complete resistance and umbrage at the suggestion that we can control how others live. Other family members were vaguely supportive but also agreed that consumption decisions are personal and that “everyone has the right to enjoy the fruits of their success” or similar sentiments.

    And stepping back and looking at the situation more broadly, I ask anyone reading this to try and imagine a candidate running for public office on a platform that explicitly states that a traditional view of material prosperity should not be the overarching goal of public policy. Inconceivable!

  • I recently wrote a blog post on a similar topic. Yet, in my case I made a radical lifestyle change (moving to South America) to even begin to live in a place that would support something approximating a sustainable lifestyle:


    This posting was inspired by a comment made in the SCORAI listserve. The gist of it is that sustainable consumption up close and personal is difficult in every way imaginable: spiritually, culturally, physically, practically, you name it. But it’s also necessary.

  • I’ve been teaching Dan Kahan’s material on cultural bias, so that’s forefront in my mind as I read your posting, Halina. You probably know all about Kahan’s work, but for a quick review: he talks about four things that inspire us to reject knowledge that is contrary to our cultural worldview:
    • Cognitive dissonance avoidance
    • Affect toward the knowledge
    • Ingroup/Outgroup issues
    • Biased assimilation – any new information must conform to prior beliefs
    The meat of the matter and where all these things eventually point to is identity. As I understand it, information that is contradictory to a person’s worldview, or their identity, creates a kind of anxiety that drives the individual to find ways to discredit and reject the information.
    I was listening to Jerry Taylor, the libertarian from Cato Institute speak the other day and he explains that tea party republicans and libertarians are opposed to climate change because it threatens their lifestyles and all they value: namely capitalism and individual choice. (Naomi Klein is the worst offender!) Again, the knowledge of climate change seems to ignite anxiety of fear of losing what we have.
    The answer to your question of how to talk to people about consumption or climate change is to find ways to show them how their lives can change in a manner consistent with their identities AND solve these problems at the same time. I’d love to know if you think that is at all feasible?

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