It is argued that the ideology at the root of all our environmental and social problems is neoliberalism.
Although neoliberalism is all around us and is the ideology that drives almost all of our political and economic systems, most people couldn’t explain to you what it is if you asked them. It’s likely, however, that they’ll be able to explain what communism is, such is our indoctrination of the neoliberalist dominant ideology that we rarely pause to question it.
So what is Neoliberalism?
Helen Kopnina and John Blewitt in their book “Sustainable Business: Key Issues” define neoliberalism as a modern politico-economic theory favouring free markets with minimal government intervention, privatisation and reduced government expenditure on public and social services. Neoliberalism’s main purpose is the efficient allocation of resources (regardless of whether they are finite or not).
Sam Gindin, a professor of political science at York University and former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (now called Unifor), defines neoliberalism this way: “[It’s] capitalism working without a working class opposition. I think that’s a fairly accurate description of what it is.”
Now, these might be empty words to you if economic speak isn’t your thing, so here are some examples of how neoliberalism shows up in our everyday lives:
- When a shopper buys a t-shirt costing $10 (because free markets are global now, people can buy something made by someone who earns a daily wage that is just a fraction of the amount that the shopper makes in an hour at their job in the ‘West’).
- When a multinational business axes jobs or moves production offshore where labour is cheaper so that their business remains competitive (think fashion and car manufacturing).
- When governments provide massive tax cuts for corporations, businesses and the super-rich, and they go on to make record profits and make huge salaries all while paying little to no tax.
- When governments remove tariffs that protect local industry in the name of free trade.
- When governments cut spending on public services such as education and healthcare, so teachers and nurses are expected to deliver services across a higher number of students or patients, and parents and patients are forced to pay more in school fees and healthcare costs.
- When public assets are privatised, moving from government control to private business control such as in the case of the energy sector, banks, healthcare, prison systems and public transit systems (in the US for example, a growing number of ‘Made in America’ clothing brands are actually made by prison workers).
Essentially, neoliberalism views all human activity through the lens of trade and competition; with every human interaction a ‘market transaction’ of sorts. It views the self-correcting free market as the most efficient way to distribute resources such as raw materials, money, labour and production. As George Monbiot points out in his article for The Guardian, neoliberalism “redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency”.
Now herein lies the two biggest problems as it relates to neoliberalism: it teaches competition, not cooperation, and it teaches us that consumers are never satiated, they always desire more which fuels the infinite growth mentality.
Basically, neoliberalism has us believing that we can achieve all our dreams of material and wealth prosperity, characterised by our never-ending consumer desires, on a finite planet.'Neoliberal thinking is hugely problematic. It has us believing that we can achieve all our dreams of material and wealth prosperity, characterised by our never-ending consumer desires, on a finite planet.'Click To Tweet
It also has us believing that focussing solely on our individual consumer choices will help solve environmental problems and we can fight climate change just by buying better. If you really want to change the world, just vote with your wallet! Neoliberalism tells us. Don’t forget to ride a bike, take your reusables, grow a garden because it’s your individual actions that will help to fight climate change!
There is some truth in all of this of course. As individuals, our eco-friendly decisions can make a small difference, and when combined with that of others’ eco choices, the positive impact can be substantial.
But it has to be said, that this is just one part of the whole truth.
What neoliberalism fails to tell us is that we are not just consumers but citizens too. We don’t live in an economy but in a society. We are dependant on each other. Thus, when we work together, we can achieve greater things than if we worked solely on the individual level. Plus it’s painstakingly slow doing it the individual way. We’re almost guaranteed to reach the disastrous global warming level of two-degree Celsius if we only focus on individual actions like buying zero waste kits, eating plant-based and shopping at farmers markets.
Individual action coupled with collective action is by far the best way to accelerate our move to a low-carbon economy. This means, in addition to our individual green actions, we should also collectively:
- put pressure on our governments to say no to building coal-fired power plants,
- demand a carbon tax policy to make “big polluters pay”,
- ensure our governments divest from fossil fuel projects,
- demand subsidies and investments in clean energy projects and public transport infrastructure,
- get our governments to pass laws criminalising in-built planned obsolescence in manufactured products, and
- encourage our governments to penalise companies that do not think ‘cradle-to-cradle’ or follow the principles of a circular economy.
Other ways to fight climate change and challenge neoliberalism’s mantra of consumerism and infinite growth: redefine success so that it isn’t measured against material goods (ie the number of investment properties you own), every time you post ‘aspirational’ images on social media consider whether it promotes or hinders the green movement, embrace slow living, consume less, shop less, reuse and recycle products and focus on your health, well-being and quality of your relationships rather than on accumulating stuff.
So by all means, take direct action to fight climate change but don’t let neoliberalism stop you from taking collective action. When both actions are taken simultaneously, it’s an unbeatable combo.
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