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The Irony of Environmentalism: The Ecological Futility but Political Necessity of Lifestyle Change

  • Paul Wapner and John Willoughby

Environmentalists argue that we need to reduce population and consumption to protect the environment, and that this is something we can all do by individually choosing to have smaller families and buying fewer products. This article questions the ecological effects of such choice. When people have fewer children or reduce their consumption, they save money. What they then do with this money is crucial to the consequences of their actions. If they place it in conventional financial mechanisms, such as banks or stocks, they merely shift the locale of environmental harm since these mechanisms, within a capitalist economy, redeploy savings into further investment and productivity. For individual lifestyle choices to make a difference, environmentalists must find ways of linking such choices to efforts aimed at changing the nature of capitalist economies. If we had effective public policies that redistributed income, forced polluters to pay for the harm they cause, mandated more environmentally friendly technologies, and reduced the workday in the richer parts of the world, we could alter the way we live our material lives.

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1 Roger Gottlieb, Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change (Cambridge: Westview Press, 2002), p. 40.

2 Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (New York: Morrow, 1981); The Earthworks Group, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth (Berkeley: The Earthworks Press, 1989); and Michael Brower and Warren Leon, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).

3 See, e.g., Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

4 Even if one placed one's money under a mattress, the resulting decline in purchasing power could lower interest rates and stimulate investment and consumer durable spending; thus, the form of saving is not central to our argument.

5 Herman Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997); and Lester Brown, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).

6 Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972).

7 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); Theo Colburn et al., Our Stolen Future (New York: Dutton, 1996); and Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1997).

8 It should be noted that a number of skeptics of environmentalism claim that increased population and consumption actually benefit the earth. See, e.g., Julian Lincoln Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); and Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

9 William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002).

10 Barbara Garson, Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash through the Global Economy (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 34.

11 Ken Conca, “Consumption and Environment in a Global Economy,” in Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, eds., Confronting Consumption (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002); and Alan Durning, How Much Is Enough? (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), pp. 133–53.

12 Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, “Confronting Consumption,” in Princen, Maniates, and Conca, eds., Confronting Consumption, p. 14.

13 Garson, Money Makes the World Go Around.

14 Herman Daly, “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in John Dryzek and David Schlosberg, eds., Debating the Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 285–89. See, generally, UNDP's Human Development Reports; available at

15 Amartya K. Sen, Commodities and Capabilities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

16 Garson, Money Makes the World Go Around.

17 See, e.g., Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World (Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood, 2002).

18 Leslie Paul Thiele, Environmentalism for a New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. xvii.

19 Ibid.

20 James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 204–209.

21 On the importance of environmental collective action (especially as it relates to individual lifestyle choices), see Maniates, Michael F. , “ Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World ?” Global Environmental Politics 1, no. 3 (2001 ), pp. 3152.

* We would like to thank Richard Matthew for helping to frame and conceptualize this article, and Simon Nicholson and Lindsay Jordan for providing useful comments on earlier drafts.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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