In the world of mixed environmental and social problems, such as global warming policy, there is a tug of war between social authoritarian forces that want top-down laws and regulations and behavior control, and a grass roots strategy that believes awareness and people making better consumption choices will be superior.
A paper in the Journal of Consumer Research is evidence for the social authoritarians. It finds that responsible consumption shifts the burden for solving global problems from governments to consumers and ultimately benefits corporations more than society.
The authors studied the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in order to examine the influence of economic elites on the creation of four types of responsible consumers: the bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer, the green consumer, the health-conscious consumer, and the financially literate consumer.
The authors identified a process that shifts responsibility from the state and corporations to the individual consumer. First, economic elites redefine the nature of the problem from political to one of individual consumption - for example, global warming stems from consumers failing to cultivate a sustainable lifestyle. Next, economic elites promote the idea that the only viable solution is for consumers to change their behavior. Third, new markets are created in order to turn this solution into a material reality (eco-friendly light bulbs, hybrid automobiles, energy efficient appliances).
Finally, consumers must adopt this new ethical self-understanding.
"When businesses convince politicians to encourage responsible consumption instead of implementing policy changes to solve environmental and social problems, business earns the license to create new markets while all of the pressure to solve the problem at hand falls on the individual consumer. For example, global warming is blamed on consumers unwilling to make greener choices rather than the failure of governments to regulate markets to the benefit of society and the environment," write authors Markus Giesler and Ela Veresiu of York University.
"The implications of our study are far-reaching and relevant for consumers and policy makers alike. While the responsible consumption myth offers a powerful vision of a better world through identity-based consumption, upon closer inspection, this logic harbors significant personal and societal costs. The responsible consumption myth promotes the idea that governments can never achieve harmony between competing economic and social or environmental goals and that this instead requires a global community of morally enlightened consumers who are empowered to make a difference through the marketplace," the authors conclude.
So our futures may not be decided by Republicans and Democrats, they may be decided by names like Koch and Soros.