Shocked by my own bulbous carbon footprint – which I recently calculated on the misguided expectation that I would be well below average – and inspired by the recent wave of climate change protests around the globe, I decided to take some climate action from a very local perspective. It turns out that my habit of flying places adds significantly more to my carbon footprint than pretty much everything else I spend my time doing, so local seemed logical, if only to keep myself busy within walking distance of my house. Despite the long history of failed local groups I have been a part of, I have a soft spot for community-led action since it appeals to my (perhaps naïve) belief that cooperation and goodwill trump individualism in the long run and that community life is good for the soul. So, with a sense of hope in the power of the neighbourhood and a certain personal responsibility for the state of the nation’s carbon emissions, I attended a small group meeting for a Wednesday night brainstorming session on ways to mitigate the climate crisis from within our area. I left the meeting with less personal guilt, but with more frustration and a feeling of discord. On the face of it, nothing particularly unusual had occurred and some of the discussion had been both informative and actionable. So why my unexpected unease?
After a little reflection it wasn’t difficult to identify the aspects of the dialogue that had prompted less concern for my air miles and more about the social divisions which often get exposed at such small community gatherings. Amidst the general positivity and convivial atmosphere I detected a subtle but palpable undercurrent of judgement, resentment and emphasis on individual action that felt out of proportion with the immense scale of the climate crisis. But it was not just this that I found jarring, it was the focus of comments and who they were aimed at that prompted my feelings of defensiveness. It was particularly hard to understand the relevance of fried chicken to the debate and though I am no great fan of plastic bottles or bags, I couldn’t help but note that these and other offences that were singled out had less to do with carbon mitigation and more to do with class-preferences and recent movements towards certain ‘green’ lifestyle choices. As the only non-white member of the group and as someone who is more than averagely preoccupied by urban social issues, I found it even harder to miss the socio-economic and racial disparities that this discussion was highlighting from within our middle-class enclave. After some further consideration of the scene that evening I came to the conclusion that many of the lines were borrowed from the scripts of ‘conscious consumption’ movements that are currently permeating into mainstream culture.
Prompted by the larger narrative on climate change, such movements are busy convincing us that climate change is an issue that must be addressed primarily at an individual level, by choosing to buy the right things over the wrong ones and ensuring others do the same. They rely on persuasion and have a distinctive aesthetic quality to them, embodied by the new wave of ‘green lifestyle influencers’ on social media. These influencers, whilst highlighting the very real need to be less wasteful and more environmentally conscious, are also using the message to gain followers to promote various lifestyle choices that include plastic-free, zero-waste, veganism and minimalism. There are notable visual and cultural tropes being sold alongside bamboo toothbrushes and organic produce in the process. Both directly and indirectly, these associated images are conflated with environmental moral superiority and are not hard to miss. This is not particularly new if we consider that within most marketing strategies, visual advertising and product placement are used to suggest that certain products and consumer choices will lead to an elevated social status and belonging. The key difference now is perhaps the emphasis on moral superiority and the environment. In this new age of environmental awareness, the symbols of success are at once different but strangely familiar. They still include what vehicle you drive (electric or even better, a bamboo framed bike), the brand and type of your hand bags and shoes (vegan leather or recycled plastic bottles ideally), where you go on holiday (ideally a staycation in an off-grid yurt) and the general contents of your canvas shopping bags. Much of the aesthetic appeal of these iconic images spring from aesthetics traditionally associated with morality, spirituality and purity in the West. Specifically, clean, bright, youthful, white and predominantly sold by young female influencers who often have the benefit of hailing from dominant versions of beauty and culture.