André Alves/ Float ︎
© Shinonome Production / ADOBE STOCK
Seems crazy to talk about sustainability in 2021. Seems impossible not to talk about sustainability in 2021. It’s as if all has been said already, but the most we could get was metal straws and eco-bags. There was once a fantasy that eco-neoliberalism would save us, that the consumption of organic products and the recycling of garbage would be able to minimize the impacts of the market on the environment. It is the imperative of “we need to do something”, but ultimately, “we” who?
As Michael E Mann reaffirmed, “everytime someone says that a problem is your fault because you’re not being responsible, it’s probable that you’re being diverted from solutions and systemic policies. blaming individuals is part of the primer that has been practiced in different industries.” To Mann, some examples are didactic, such as the war industry mantra - “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” - or even the BP (British Petroleum), who created the individual carbon footprint calculator as a way to divert public attention to the individual impact in place of company emissions.
It’s obvious that individual choices don’t replace systemic changes, not least because many collective proposals don’t necessarily contribute to changes. The paradox of plastic bags is a great example. If 2019 was the year in which many cities banned the use of plastic bags, this was also the year in which the production of plastic waste in Brazil grew. From the 11.3 million tons of plastic generated in the country, only 1.3% were recycled (Piauí).
The dilemma between individual and systemic is still filled by promising speeches VS questionable actions: the sustainable clothing brand that uses highly polluting inputs, the gasoline car called “Eco”, the countless food techs of meatless foods that use plastic packaging and promise a better future. Something doesn't feel right in our green fantasy.
Sustainability became environmental marketing, which became greenwashing. In this process, the market did what it does best: it climbed to the point of emptying out its meaning. We heard and saw so many empty promises that it became difficult to believe in real transformations.
It’s a perverse game between supply and demand: on the one hand, companies claim that they offer few sustainable products because consumers do not want to pay for it; on the other, consumers who would even like to assume a more conscious consumption, but who cannot afford to pay. As Angela Mahecha Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, says, “The fight against climate change is positioned as a great business opportunity for large companies. but it was the greed and speed of the companies that led us to the crisis to begin with ”.
To make it harder, we are at a time when consumption operates at the speed of the impulse. "want it?" you can buy and receive it so quickly that you better order it right now. with discount. a must-see, no need to wait. you can't wait. Convenience and responsible consumption seem like parallel realities, narratives that compete and cancel each other's purchase decisions. It’s as if Greta Thunberg and Jeff Bezos lived in parallel worlds, a clash between eco-shame and post-convenience.
On the one hand, you try to be vegan, try compost and only buy organics. but no matter how many plastic straws you stop using, online retail numbers continue to grow. 3 billion packages delivered annually by Amazon in the USA, 2.9 billion packages delivered in China after Single's Day 2020, highest 24-hour sales rate in history, 44.6 million meals delivered by iFood only in August 2020. In a primary level, how many packages do these numbers represent?
If humans are bipedal contradictions, our paradoxical relationship (and problematic) with consumption is maybe our own masterpiece. In between necessities, desires and impulses, we live in a culture in which we buy more then ever and, at the same time, it seems that we have never known so little about what we really want. Instead of deepening our understanding about desire, we keep on operating in a jealousy system — “If i had this, i would be happy” or even “to find plenitude, i need that”, as if happiness and completeness were indeed possible ideals.
In the end of the day, the gaze turned “only” towards the system as much as the one directed only towards the individual attitudes end up serving as two sides of the same coin: strategies of division. As well as the intentional weakening of catastrophism, the belief that some savior will come to our rescue distracts attention from massive solutions.
If the dance with the pandemic virus has taught us anything, it is that collective and individual actions have great importance, but different weights. And that public pressure is key to producing some kind of transformation — and also hope. we live in a scenario prone to change because it is impossible to deny global warming.
The climate future is inevitable and, for many specialists, this inevitability also pushes us towards an optimistic scenario, one in which only one option is left: to act.
André is a writer, consultant and researcher at @floatvibes, a hub of culture, behavior and strategy.