Climate Change and Consumer Societies
A bit of news from the Task Force to get us started—those of you who joined us in Chicago in November know that while our two panels were both well attended, the bigger story was the highly visible presence of climate change, energy, infrastructure, and consumption focused sessions. It seems that interest in the drivers and impacts of climate change has really begun to rise. On a related front, in my capacity as a Task Force member, I participated in a meeting of the National Research Council’s Board on Environmental Change and Society (BECS), held during the week before the AAA. A primary goal for this meeting was to examine the role of the social sciences in implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan. The stark takeaway from the event, from my perspective, was the degree to which the agency heads and other participants sought more input from social scientists on the topic of climate change. They seek our advice, and we need to have more anthropologists ready to contribute to this call. It is now up to us to offer our contributions, and to train students who can add to the pool of climate-change researchers.
In direct response to the agency officials who made their plea in the BECS meeting that I just described, this month I highlight the work of Cindy Isenhour, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maine, Orono.
Isenhour started engaging with issues of climate change while working for an environmental non-governmental organization. “We had projects in Central America designed to support community-based reforestation and watershed management projects. It was really great work and I enjoyed it immensely, but became disillusioned by the fact that so many of the “experts” with whom I worked advocated reforestation as a means to sequester carbon, yet were utterly unconcerned about the emissions associated with their frequent flights back and forth,” said Cindy. She also grew tired of hearing so much about the ecological impact of women burning armfuls of wood to cook, when all of the data suggested that the larger pressure on local forests came from processes of urbanization or commercial land use for export crop/beef production.
Deciding then that her PhD research should focus on “studying up” and “through,” Isenhour began to examine both climate and the environmental impacts of relatively wealthy, high consuming societies and the political-economic structures that justify unequal access and the displacement of environmental degradation. She comments that, “since then I’ve focused my work on the climate and environmental impacts of “consumer culture” and how those thoroughly embedded in it are attempting to respond on multiple levels, from the urban citizen consumer to state policy.” Her dissertation work was conducted in Sweden, an environmentally progressive nation with a citizenry highly engaged in climate issues; it also has a competitive capitalist economy and strong consumer culture, making it a particularly interesting place to study climate and sustainability policy and practice. While Sweden has made significant improvements in lowering the carbon intensity of their economy through efficiency gains, and has registered CO2 reductions consistent with Kyoto reporting requirements, recent studies suggest that these gains have been cannibalized by growing levels of indirect energy consumption, particularly of carbon intensive imports (eg, toys from China, apples from Argentina, and clothing from Bangladesh).
Isenhour’s dissertation directly engaged with policymakers and citizen-consumers trying to reduce the climate impact of consumption. Despite the common rhetoric that sustainable lifestyles depend on educating consumers and asking them to take responsibility, there are significant structural barriers faced even by those who are most aware of and committed to reducing the climate impact of their lifestyles. These barriers suggest the need for policies that can help to broaden participation including tax and pricing mechanisms, incentives for extended producer responsibility, investments in community collaborative consumption or bans of disposable and highly resource intensive products. In addition, Cindy found that energy efficiency related savings are often reinvested in the purchase of consumer goods. Sadly this reallocation often results in higher household emissions, through consumption of energy and emissions embodied in consumer goods (yet often emitted elsewhere).
More recently, Cindy has been working on extending this project by examining how Sweden is dealing with the global climate impact of their consumption by funding urbanization-related CDM projects in China. She is trying to follow the whole policy chain to see how the rhetoric of efficiency is reproduced and interpreted in the Chinese context (and how it plays out on the ground in household consumption).
Says Isenhour, “of course, I think it is important for more of us to work with what the European Environmental Agency has suggested is the ‘mother of all environmental issues’: over-consumption. But I also think we’re missing the big synthesis. We anthropologists are so uniquely situated to talk about adaptation and culture change through time and across cultures. I hope that more students will consider the urgency of climate change, and focus on public anthropology in ways that emphasize communication with the public and policymakers.”
Sarah Strauss is the contributing editor of Changing the Atmosphere, the AN column of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force.