By Daniel Tarade
A central tenet of the neo-liberal ideology is that the individual is the seat of moral consideration. When viewing the world from this lens, all of society’s ills can be distilled down to the cumulative sins of the singular person. As a corollary, any societal change will only come piecemeal by ethical practices being adopted by a greater number of its citizens. Although it is satisfying to hold your seemingly selfish neighbours responsible for the horrors descending upon us (or those already here), the neo-liberal strategy has laid down battle lines in entirely the wrong position. Rather than arguing among ourselves about what we ought to do in our own lives to stave off catastrophe, we need to collectively look towards the corporations. In their quest for profit, corporations have perverted the political process, supported imperialism, and left our environmental prospects destitute. Yet, coverage of global warming or deforestation or plastic waste focuses on what the individual can do. The global issues are presented as dilemmas that can be solved via the free market by preferentially supporting corporations that are more sustainable. The onus is placed entirely on the individual to research products and shop ethically, to invest their own time and money. From the perspective of the neo-liberal, those who fail to do so are deserving of ridicule. This is not helpful. Rather than focusing on systemic injustice, we circle jerk and victim-blame. Those whose primary label is ‘consumer’ and ‘labourer’ need to unite and center questions about global justice around the corporation. Only then can we reclaim our planet.
Why ought we take it easy on the individual? The capitalist system makes necessary working long hours to provide for one’s basic needs. More and more, people need to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. With little purchasing power and encumbered with sheer exhaustion, I cannot blame anyone for not rinsing out recyclables, buying local produce, riding a bicycle, or going vegetarian. The capitalist system takes a toll on all of us. After all, we are forced into competition with our neighbours for essential materials. Many of us just don’t have the time or the money or the energy to do what we can to make the world a more sustainable, conscious, equitable place. With this in mind, it is indeed a privileged position to be able to shop organic, locally-sourced, vegan food and clothing. To afford a Tesla. To invest in solar panels. Without changing the material reality of the average worker, any company marketing sustainable products are merely profiting off of our collective desire to sustain humanity but without addressing the barriers that prevent so many from participating in its survival.
Let me attempt to illuminate the destructive thought process endemic to the neo-liberal, insidious enough to hop from head to head. In the first months of 2019, I attended Anthropocene, an art exhibit that highlighted the numerous ways in which human activity has shaped the planet. Through aerial photography and videography, the artists documented open-pit mines, sulfur dumping, mountains of plastic rubbish, and deforestation. Like many, I was struck by the visceral ways in which we were transforming our planet, and largely to our own detriment. And I was angry. Yet, in that moment, the only people readily available as a target for my anger were my fellow museum-goers. I was peeved with the groups of trendy twenty-somethings clad in leather (when industrial animal agriculture is a leading cause of antibiotic resistant microbes, global warming, and deforestation). I was upset with the mother corralling her four young children, when choosing to have children while on the cusp of environmental catastrophe seems cruel. I began imagining how many people drove their SUVs to the exhibit, those who would let the images pass over their eyes and never act on the knowledge they acquired, instead satisfied to simply view the catastrophe porn. When I arrived at the final displays, my anger peaked and was finally re-directed. Next to a screen providing live-updates of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the final panels highlighted what we can all do to help mitigate climate change. Among the suggestions were bicycling, eating less meat, and recycling. After being exposed to information about our collective demise, along with photographic evidence, the suggestions were…underwhelming. And infuriating. After seeing the blatant disregard these multinational corporations held for the workers of the world, I became convinced that systematic change was needed. Where was the option to eat the rich? Yet, the earnest neo-liberal outlook on climate change made be re-evaluate the anger I had cast onto my fellow person, and I was able to shake my head clear. The people in that museum are not at the root of the problem. We are all victims of greedy, profit-driven corporations that maintain poverty on a global scale.
Being told that the weight of the world is on our collective shoulders is frustrating. We are not involved in an honest, democratic process regarding the decisions that affect the global community. So, we get frustrated with each other. Our anger is misdirected towards each other along lines of race and sex and class. Those who lack the time and energy and money to be conscientious about the environment are the subject of our ire rather than the corporations that make both environmental decay and poverty a reality. We need to recognize the common impotence we share in our current political-economic system and establish the direct democracies within corporations that allow us to consider the common good.