Well I loathe to admit it, but the other day I found myself listening to Q on CBC Radio. The topic of discussion was the ethics of oil. Ezra Levant, the right-wing activist, who has just written the book Ethical Oil: The case for Canada’s oilsands was debating environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk on the ethics of purchasing and consuming oil.
Levant was defending the tar sands saying that it was the most ethical oil on the planet because it didn’t fund terrorism or Chavez. Nikiforuk, on the other hand, stated that there is no such thing as ethical oil.
Levant totally ignores the sovereignty and health claims of Indigenous downstream communities in the Athabasca. He also doesn’t count the high amount of energy and water needed to extract the oil from the tar sands or the massive amount pollution dumped into the land. Part of me wondered why Levant even bothers to justify the tar sands using the language of ethics and social responsibility? What happened to the good old up your ass man needs his gas conservative logic?
What is noteworthy is not Levant’s arguments (which are never noteworthy) but the form in which the debate is framed and what this frame says about our current predicament. The old logic of capitalism of production and alienated meaningless consumption (think Mad Men) is no more. Capitalism has perversely incorporated the critiques levied against it. In the 1980s and 90s products were increasingly sold not as things but as experiences, as a way of life.
Now products are not just sold as personal experiences or lifestyle symbols, they are now marketed as ethical choices. This “cultural capitalism” allows consumers to do something meaningful while buying and consuming. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted, “the very act of participation in consumerist activity is simultaneously presented as a participation in the struggle against evils ultimately caused by capitalist consumption.” Shopping and doing good in the world can be accomplished with just one gesture of buying an ethical product.
The freedom to choose in our society is now not on the collective political level but at the grocery store. Individual consumption is now the place where we make our ideological preferences known. (Fair trade, free range, organic etc…) Instead of having real alternatives we are forced to choose among a range of options that may makes us feel better but do little other than sustain market operation that is creating the problems we are trying to counteract (poverty, climate change, imperialism and so on)
Let’s think about this on the political level. During last years health care debate in the United States the obvious choice of universal single payer health care was a non-option not because it was more expensive but because it was ideologically unpalatable. Hillary Clinton famously said that single payer was not on the table despite poll after poll showing Americans supported some sort single payer health care system. Americans then were forced to choose between already broken options, subsidized consumers of private insurance and so on.
The point is that the root of the problem was not only not addressed but also not discussed. Was this not also the case when Tim O’Niell, the former BMO economist released his report on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia? He presented an array of options that the government could undertake to pay for future post secondary education; deregulate tuition, merger of universities and so on. However what was unmentionable was that universities need more federal funding. Far from being unreasonable, more funding requires only a modest change in our wasteful spending (think fighter jets, the G20, Artic expeditions, new prisons)
When we talk about ethical consumerism it is important to keep in mind that framework in which that debate takes place. It locates problems and their solutions on the individual level. Even if you advocate or express an anti-consumerist position (reducing the amount we shop) you are still reducing large structural problems (climate change, poverty etc.) down to individual choices and thus not discussing their systemic causes.
We can’t change the world by just changing our personal shopping habits. We can no more consume our way out of the coming ecological crisis than we can dig ourselves out of a hole. This doesn’t mean that we should stop buying fair trade coffee. It does mean we should stop expecting that those choices will have tangible impacts or replace the necessity of collective political action.
We should be critical of utopian liberals and conservatives who insist we can buy our way out of capitalism’s problems. The only realistic solutions to our various collective problems are the seemingly impossible options. If we simply think and act within the premise of market-based solutions to market based problems are we really free to choose how to best tackle these problems? Zizek aptly states, “one should emphasize that freedom is “actual” precisely and only as the capacity to “transcend” the coordinates of a given situation.”