THE POWER OF THE CONSUMER:
A PERSONAL AGENDA.



It is obvious from the previous presentations that both, ecological balance and social justice, are essential for our peaceful survival on earth. To achieve these goals, we examine here our own power as individuals, global citizens and consumers, to change and move things in our world for the better. Ecological balance and social justice will not come about in a culture that is based upon the mystique of unlimited growth fueled by greed, be that the greed of individuals, or corporations, or nations. Because this mystique is totally woven into the fabric of our economy and political structure, we must turn toward the grass roots of society and empower the individual consumers to affect the changes necessary for ecological balance and social justice. Actually the process implied here is not that of the empowerment of someone who had no such power. The power is there, but it needs to be discovered, channeled and properly focused in order to become effective and useful.
This may sound like a call to a communist rally, where people shout “Workers unite!” except that here we shout “Consumers unite!” The differences are that here we function in a democracy, many of the consumers are also producers, and the aim is to achieve ecological balance in a just society through reason and not through violence. We already have what is called a “Consumer Union” established for our protection in a market oriented world. But that is not enough. We have to change the orientation of our world by using our influence as consumers. The rule is: if it doesn’t sell, it won’t be produced.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the process of empowerment of the consumer. This process develops in two dimensions: one is within the life of the individual consumer, the other is along the social aspects of our lives. In the first, I ask: “What can I do as a consumer to work toward ecological balance and social justice?” In the other I ask: “How can I coordinate my efforts with others who think the same way as I do?” The answers to these questions are interwoven at many points. What follows then is an agenda, worked out here only in broad outlines. You are welcome to follow this outline, to fill in your own particular details, or to change it as you see fit. The major ideas are summed up here in four broad points.

1. Knowledge is fundamental. Education is necessary to be able to follow an agenda that is based on facts and not on empty emotions. To be effective we need convictions, and real convictions are based on truth. That is the way to achieve a caring and rational frame of mind from which all else can follow.

2. What I should not do. I should not expect others to do the job. The job is mine. It is easy to blame others. How simple it is to say that they should be doing something, or that the third world people should take care of that, or that this is the government’s problem, and so on. And then sit down and do nothing. This is my thing. I have to figure out my life and not the lives of others. It is possible, however, that I will find many others who think the same way as I do. That’s even better.

3. What can I do? I do not want to underestimate the input of a single person. It is comparable to the way natural selection gives value and direction to an otherwise random situation, and slowly it can produce marvelous things. I want to act according to my insights. I want to speak up to be heard, and to share my values with others, primarily with my children and my friends. I know that ideas can spread geometrically if we all share them with as many as we can. I also know that I have buying power, which I can also share with others. If a product is not acceptable to consumers it will not be produced. And a product that is ecologically unsound should be left on the shelves. I will not be snared and dazzled by clever advertising. Words and images are of little relevance to the real merits of a product.

I work out an agenda along the lines of the Six Steps to a Sustainable Society of Lester R. Brown and Pamela Shaw (World Watch Papers number 48, March 1982. See also the section Three more steps in this presentation.) Take, for instance, the idea of energy conservation. It is quite exciting to figure out ways to cut down on energy consumption in my life in a way that makes thing even better than before. The way I plan and build and insulate my home and use the advantages the sun provides from heating water to a greenhouse placed on the southern side of my home. If I feel that I have lost the sense of being in touch with the natural world, I want to try to build it up again. In a similar manner I consider all other aspects of the Six Steps Agenda. I can have my input in every one of them and in many different ways. I try to be imaginative and creative to live better for less by simply cutting down on waste. Thrash is valuable. I think about these things and note down my ideas for future reference.

I want to change the mentality of the Tragedy of the Commons in my life and to figure out what are those things I really need. I want to recognize greed and control it in myself and I also want to neutralize the effect other peoples’ greed has on me. Irrational consumerism has no place in my life? I develop exercises to counteract the Tragedy of the Commons mentality. Here is one. Before I do something I wait a little and consider the consequences of what I am planning to do. Here is another. I try to be considerate to others as much as I am considerate to myself. These are ways to make myself aware of values along the lines of long range benefits, which are much greater than the value of immediate but irresponsible profit.

4. In the political area I can do a lot too. At times of elections I expect to find in the candidates values that respect life and are solidly founded in ecological realism. I do not support candidates who represent the interests of corporations, who are without ecological and social conscience. I make myself aware of crimes against humanity from sweatshops to dumping chemicals into our environment, and buy or avoid the products of the various manufacturing corporations accordingly. I evaluate the media based on their proper coverage of ecological and social justice issues. I start or join public forums about these matters on the web. The Internet is a powerful instrument to receive and spread information.

And here is just one more thought. There is a lot of talk these days about recycling paper, plastics, glass and metal cans. To produce an aluminum can from new materials costs a certain amount of money. To produce the same can from recycled materials costs about ten times less. It is a worth while effort to investigate who benefits from the difference? The consumer? I really wonder. How much of the cost is covered by the deposit? I would expect the producers to give a verifiable public account on profit from recycling. The same should be the rule for all public recycling projects in county and state.

This is only a rather superficial and broad outline of eras, which have some impact on ecological and social justice issues. I treated only one point here in the Six Steps Agenda, that of conservation. Try your creative skills on this and on the other five. It would be good to hear from you.

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