Saturday, September 03, 2005

Consumption, the Individual, and the Corporation

In my Wednesday post on New Orleans and consumption, I asked what it would take for me to stop consuming so much oil. Mikaela commented by posting this paragraph from Ross Gelspan from an interview on Democracy Now.

"Unfortunately, it has to be political action. It's not lifestyle action. Even if we all sat in the dark and rode bicycles, it would not stop global warming, especially given the reliance on coal in India and China and on oil in Mexico and Nigeria and the developing countries. We need to take the lead in spearheading a rapid transition to clean energy. That will happen only through political pressure, and hopefully through pressure on the United States from a lot of the European countries that are already moving in that direction. This is not a technology issue. We have all these renewable sources right now. ItÂ’s really a political issue. And so, I would urge people to take political action to force this kind of change."

I have long been sympathetic to the idea that the real problems in consumption are corporations and nations and that individuals have little real control over these matters. But in this case at least, I have to partially disagree with Gelspan. There is no question that reliance on fossil fuels by nations of the developing world is playing a huge role in climate change and other global problems. When Gelspan says that people could stop driving and sit in the dark and it wouldn't make a difference, he's saying that individuals have no responsibility, that people can consume without consequences because it is the corporations and nations who are creating climate change and driving our oil-based economy. This I disagree with because he is making a false separation between these corporations and nations and the people who are involved with them.

It's one thing to blame Nigeria for domestic oil consumption and not blame the people too much because the average Nigerian actually consumes very little oil and because the possibility of democratic change is a lot more limited there than in the United States. Here it is a very different situation for many reasons:

1. Americans do consume a tremendous amount of oil. We don't just demand cheap gas. We demand cheap plastic goods. We take our groceries home in plastic bags. We use oil in our cosmetics.

2. The separation between Americans and American corporations is small. How many Americans hold stock in companies that produce oil or sell products based upon oil? How many more support ideas of free trade in order that they can make more money? Each American who owns stock in a company that is remotely connected to the oil trade has much greaterinvolvementt in climate change and oil consumption than others. The same with those whose jobs and lives are made easier through the oil industry. Furthermore, is there any evidence at all that some number of Americans that is within even shouting distance of a majority doesn't want even more oil consumption, cheaper gas, larger vehicles, more products made with oil. Individuals do hold a tremendous sway over oil consumption because we demand so much of it in so many aspects of our lives.

3. Since we live in a nation with some responsibility to its citizens, we do have greater responsibility for the oil consumption of our government and nation as a whole. To separate the demands and consumption of the average American to that of corporations or governments is like the arguments around false consciousness--it requires a serious leap of faith about an abstract people who believe like we do if we could only reach them. As I argued fairly recently in another post, this is strictly a myth. Who specifically are these people and how are they not speaking? Because it seems to me that they are speaking and that a lot of them are voting Republican--they are people who maybe agree with progressives on some issues but for whom gay marriage is a more salient issue than environmental protection or national health insurance. These are some of the same people who are buying SUVs and large trucks. To say that they are not fully invested in the oil economy and that they decisions they make are not reasonable, whether in politics or oil consumption, is to not respect the decisions these people make only because we don't agree with those decisions.

We certainly can not respect people who vote Republican, but we have to at least admit that they do act according to how they view their interests. How does this relate to oil consumption and individuals? Because to say that individuals don't greatly affect oil consumption, both with their choice of automobiles and through the myriad of other ways that we are integrated into a global petroleum economy is both to undermine real analysis of what to do about this situation and to perpetuate a myth that divides individuals & the corporations and governments that they are deeply intertwined with.