Why 'living simply' isn't the answer

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The worst environmental problems can’t possibly be solved by individual consumer choices. Collective problems require collective solutions

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by Paul D’Amato

Paul D’Amato is managing editor of International Socialist Review. This article was first published in the U.S. newspaper Socialist Worker, in March 2001

International protests against globalization have cast a bright light on how transnational corporations run roughshod over ordinary people’s lives everywhere. In reaction, activists have come up with a broad range of responses – from demonstrations in the streets to personal choices about consumption.

Most activists don’t see any contradiction between protesting in Washington, D.C., against George W. Bush’s theft of the White House and deciding to eat only organic food or ride a bicycle to reduce pollution.

But mass collective action and changing your personal consumption habits imply very different approaches to changing the world.

This isn’t an argument against anyone deciding to make personal changes that suit them. People should have the right to eat and live as they please. But can such choices have any significant impact on society?

What motivates young people to decide to change their lifestyle is their genuine alarm at the way that the profit system wrecks our lives. But the mass of the world’s poor and working-class people doesn’t, in today’s world, have the luxury to “eat and live as they please.” For the majority, the question is not what lifestyle to choose, but figuring out how to get by.

One billion people live on $1 a day or less. In the U.S., there are more than 34 million poor people. The main choices in their lives – and in the lives of most working-class people – are work or starve, work or lose your home, get a better-paying job or forget the education for your kids, and so on.

A factory worker in Los Angeles may prefer to take a bus to work rather than drive his or her car. Unfortunately, the public transportation system in LA is so bad that taking the bus isn’t really an option.

Collective problems require collective solutions

The worst environmental problems – like the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming – can’t possibly be solved by individual consumer choices.

You may choose not to drive a car. But what impact will that have when power plants burn coal and the national transportation system consists of fleets of diesel trucks spewing filth into the air?

You may eat organic food. But organic food is out of the price range of the majority of people.

Mass action is necessary – not only because it’s the only way to achieve real change, but also because people’s consciousness about the world and how to change it can only develop when they move from despairing alone to hoping collectively.

The struggle in Bolivia against privatization of the water system is a good example of why collective action, rather than personal choices, is the key to real change. Millions of Bolivian workers, peasants and poor people took to the streets and forced the government to back down on its plans – which would have led to massive increases in the cost of water.

This not only achieved what individual consumer choices could never have – after all, you can’t decide not to consume water – but mass struggle raises the possibility of collective solutions to capitalism.

The danger of focusing on individual choices is that it tends to place a value judgment on those who don’t live in certain ways. Sometimes, ordinary people who are the victims of the system get blamed for contributing, through their bad consumer choices, to the world’s problems.

But the root of the problem is the way production is organized for profit, not what people choose or don’t choose to buy. As the English writer William Morris put it so eloquently:

“It is profit which draws men into enormous unmanageable aggregations called towns, for instance; profit which crowds them up when they are there into quarters without gardens or open spaces; profit which won’t take the most ordinary precautions against wrapping a whole district in a cloud of sulphurous smoke; which turns beautiful rivers into filthy sewers, which condemns all but the rich to live in houses idiotically cramped and confined at the best, and at the worst in houses for whose wretchedness there is no name.”

Only when the world’s united producers collectively seize the means of production can we establish the conditions in which corporate profiteering and degradation of our planet can be reversed.


  • It has to be a change in Company Law:
    Since ‘Capitalism’ has to change……yet we cannot do without
    it…..how about a change to the law which states all companies ‘have to make the
    most profit’ for their shareholders – this leads to excessive growth, high
    profits and high wages at the top – into a new situation where the law states
    that profits are ‘capped’.

    This system allows each company to earn all ‘running costs’
    plus make a 30% profit. Of this, 20% is paid back to investors, and 10%
    returned to the company for re-investment (or bonus for staff). Any ‘products’
    would be priced by dividing the number of ‘product items’ made into the
    (running costs +30%) total….

    It’s not ideal, however it is
    a start towards a more sustainable and reduced pressure-on-growth strategy
    which has led to environmental degradation and poverty for the many, and
    high-spec, high-turnover items for those living in high- economy societies….

    • But, LR, rewriting corporate charter law in any meaningful way is precisely as difficult as demanding socialism, a.k.a., economic redistribution and the creation of public enterprises to compete against private enterprises and solve the problems created by corporate capitalism.  No legislature is going to pass such a bill in our age of politics-by-money, and big money would swamp any attempt at a popular referendum.  Special pleading isn’t going to cut the mustard.

  • ‘Living simply’ isn’t THE answer, because the problem requires multiple responses, macro and micro changes. The people who choose to cycle/bus/reduce consumption stand as examples to others who need to see a different way, & help inform those who are uninformed.

  • Here in Gauteng, the province containing Johannesburg, there has been a massively supported court case mounted to prevent the e-tolling of the recently upgraded freeways. It was no doubt massively supported because most commuters have no public transport alternatives available to them for getting to and from work. The court case was successful in getting e-tolling interdicted until detailed disclosure of the e-tolling contracts, contractors and other cheaper ways of raising the necessary finance for the upgrade loan are considered. The government however is not heeding the public outcry and is appealing the verdict. Even the ANC, supposed to be government for the people by the people, once in government dances to another drum.

  • As a lifelong socialist, I’m dismayed at the scores of articles I’ve seen lately on this very topic slamming people who, for example, decide to purchase local organically grown food from a food co-op rather than the toxic mix which is standard fare at the capitalist grocers, much of it from Mexico where pesticides such as DDT are still allowed.  And it seems self-evident that hundreds of thousands of people who decide to ride a bicycle to work rather than drive a car amounts to collective mass action of a sort.  City councils around the world have been forced to provide more bicycle paths (some of them dedicated lanes to bikes only) due to the massive increase of cyclists on the road, and this in turn has made some cities more walkable. One of the contradictions of capitalism is that a growing number of workers can no longer afford to drive a car to work, and are taking to bicycles again.  They may not be out to change the world but are doing their part for physical fitness, for making the air a little less toxic, and for setting an example for youth. We don’t need to constantly slam people for supporting alternative economic models, getting some exercise, and virtually forcing the large grocers to carry more organic produce in their stores.

    • Richard … I’d be interested to see some links to the “scores of articles” you have seen “slamming people” for buying local food or riding bicycles. I follow this field very closely, and I haven’t noticed them, so perhaps you’ve found some publication I’m unaware of?

      If you have seen such statements, I assure that they don’t come from serious socialists. We don’t slam working people for their lifestyle choices, whether they ride bikes or drive cars or walk, whether they eat granola or twinkies.

      What we DO say is expressed clearly in the article above, which argues that personal lifestyle changes won’t save the world from capitalist ecocide, but also insists: “This isn’t an argument against anyone deciding to make personal changes that suit them. People should have the right to eat and live as they please.” 

      (BTW — I ride a bicycle and whenever possible I buy food from a nearby farmers’ market — but I don’t pretend, to myself or anyone else, that I’m thereby changing the world.)

  • The same excellent arguments can be used against the self-righteous “activists” who think they are doing their part to change the world by adopting vegetarian or vegan diets.

    It’s been argued on this website time and time again that changing lifestyle and consumption choices is not an effective strategy for fighting environmental destruction and climate change. Here are some of the best contributions:

    On the Origins of Green Liberalism by Ted Steinberg

    Why Corporate Fat Cats Love “Ethical Consumerism”

    Are Consumers Destroying the Earth? by Simon Butler

    Green Lifestyle Choices Won’t Solve the Climate Problem by Gar Lipow.

    See also the chapter in Too Many People? entitled, “The Myth of Consumer Sovereignty”.