In the ten or so days that I’ve been attending the COP and related events, I have been given two t-shirts, one water bottle, one bag, a raincoat, a handful of postcards and several buttons that mark me as a supporter of different climate-related causes. (It should be noted that most of these objects will go largely unused after the COP is over.) When comparing my booty with those of other members of my delegation, I realized I was way at the lower end of acquisition, with most of them having received many more items. After overcoming my first reaction – I want those things too! – I realized that even the most committed climate change activists are getting the picture at least partially wrong.

Consumption is one of the main drivers of climate change, and it works by coupling individual identity with acquisition of commodities. As the climate Ambassador from South Korea was explaining at a side event on sustainable transportation, in traditionally bike-riding Asian cultures, driving cars has now become a symbol of richness. This example is only one of the many discussed by the literature on the sociology of consumption. We acquire things because they will signal to other people that we can afford them, and that we have the cultural capital to understand and embrace them.

The road to climate change mitigation marks the need for curbing consumption, in particular in the developed world. Consumption reduction not only helps reduce the amount of resources extracted from the Earth and the energy that goes into the manufacturing process, but it also creates a space in which individual lives are less commodified and more open to human interaction. An improvement in public welfare is at the heart of this issue: things can’t make us happy, but relationships might. And in building closer connections, we may be able to communicate our individualities in ways other than the objects we possess.

So here my question is raised: is it possible for active climate change organizations, which spearhead the fight for mitigation and adaptation, to set the example on how a sustainable world would function? Activism is vital in the road to sustainability, and the work done so far has been excellent, but it is far from over. All of us should be paying a little less attention to the color of our shirts, and a little more to the relationships we create along the way.

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16 Responses to “Freebies”

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  4. dunningg says:

    Kudos, Bettina. It’s a bit frightening how easy it is to slip right back into the behavior we’re trying to change.

  5. Grace Lange says:

    In response to you Dave, check out the 10-10 campaign. The 10-10 campaign is working to try to get people to tackle global warming without having to wait on the governmental lags.
    http://www.1010uk.org/

  6. David Munn says:

    I completely agree…great post, Betina. I hope we can all work to curb our own consumption after this experience. Even before legislation forces us to, we have to break the links between excessive consumerism and the American way of life. Placing more value on people/relationships is certainly one of the best methods for doing so…

  7. Manuel says:

    My pessimistic activist self wonders if those great “Save the world” shirts were made in fair and transparent working conditions, or in some sweatshop in Indonesia that dumps its waste on a watershed.

  8. Barbara says:

    Bettina certainly raises a valid and well articulated point, but I hope all the delegates will wear their “message” t-shirts proudly and often. The message on the shirts may prompt questions and discussions, which will allow these well informed students to make even more of a difference when they return.

  9. hoffmand says:

    S.N.A.P.S. Bettina has hit the nail on the head here.

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