Against ‘consumption’

What would a realistic leftist response to the climate crisis look like? In a response to Mike Haynes’ recent article, Taisie Tsikas argues that we must shift our perspective from reducing consumption to radically reorganising society.

Gilet Jaunes protesters
Photo by ev on Unsplash

The pressing reality of climate breakdown raises many questions for leftists. One of the thornier questions has been that of consumption. If we are serious about decarbonisation, can average consumption in the West be maintained at its current level? 

The more conservative and technocratic wing of environmentalism has typically focused on individualistic ‘solutions’ to climate breakdown that address people first and foremost as consumers. That perspective is becoming less and less convincing. The global climate strike last week demonstrated that millions of people recognise that the crisis is necessarily political and demands a collective response that goes way beyond recycling and saying no to plastic straws. 

But is that all we need to say about consumption? In a recent polemic, Mike Haynes argued that consumption levels in wealthy countries must be reduced in order to address the climate crisis and that the left has been afraid of confronting this conclusion because it makes the idea of socialism – or any action to reduce emissions – seem less appealing. 

‘We have to share what we already have and that means not only the richest giving up something but those on ‘average’ wages in the developed world too. … [M]any of us are going to have to accept reduced levels of consumption. This is the point the left has yet to grasp.’

Empirically, Haynes is probably right that consumption per capita will have to fall in the West under any leftist program for cutting emissions on anything like the necessary timescale. Animal agriculture and aviation are two areas of industry that would need to be more or less eliminated. Many green industrial projects also have hard limits, meaning that carbon-intensive production can’t be straightforwardly ‘replaced’ with a green version. Constructing railroads uses large amounts of concrete, which is a major source of emissions. Renewable energy infrastructure and electric vehicles require metals which are scarce, and extractivism is deeply implicated in the neo-colonial plundering of the Global South. ‘We do not live in a world of infinite possibilities.’ But politically, what does this entail? Haynes isn’t sure: ‘I still don’t know how to deal with this myself’.

It has to be said, there is a strain of popular left politics whose strategy is denialism coupled with a reliance on technology as a panacea for maintaining high consumption. Green consumerist utopianism becomes an advert for socialism. In Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), Aaron Bastani argues that ‘under FALC, we will see more of the world than ever before … and lead lives equivalent, if we wish, to those of today’s billionaires’. For less exasperating iterations of this tendency, we might look at the Labour Party’s recently announced policy of introducing 2.5 million interest-free loans for electric cars (which only emit 17-30% less emissions than petrol equivalents over their lifecycle).

What would a more realistic leftist response to the climate crisis look like? Haynes briefly acknowledges that ‘organising society more sensibly can limit the change in consumption that workers in the advanced world would have to make’ but he doesn’t follow through to identify the possibilities that open up for communist interventions into climate politics. ‘Reorganising society’ can’t be an afterthought – it should be front and centre in addressing climate. In this vein, Tithi Bhattacharya has made the argument for a Green New Deal based on public goods and care:

‘Capitalism has always promised a higher living standard than any economic system before, understood as a plenitude of ‘things.’ … If climate change has forced an urgent recalibration of this model, a Green New Deal must take the further step to offer an alternative, which will involve both a redefinition of wealth and the invention of new means of creating it.’

Haynes also elides ‘consumption’ with emissions, and tacitly hitches both to quality of life, but again this closes down avenues for contesting how emissions are to be eliminated. If we expanded renewable energy and restricted fossil fuel energy production, then we could begin to decouple energy consumption from emissions. If our homes were properly insulated, we could consume less gas. If we had more time off work, we could have time to take the train rather than fly. If we re-organised our cities and had free and expanded public transport, we could drive less. All of these interventions would reduce emissions – all while improving quality of life. When so many ‘environmental’ measures take the form of regressive taxes and market-based measures that cut out those on lower incomes, it is a dereliction not to demand socialist alternatives.

To take a concrete case, Haynes argues that the British left were too uncritical of the gilets jaunes in France and should have acknowledged that they were ‘anti-environment’. The gilets jaunes movement was initially a reaction against a regressive fuel tax imposed by Macron. Protests erupted as the tax threatened to push people into poverty. Haynes is against the ‘line’ that ‘the rich had to be made to pay for the crisis – not the workers.’ 

The first problem with this pronouncement is that this time, Haynes has his facts wrong: the tax’s impact on emissions was estimated to be negligible. Most people aren’t able to change their behaviour (as in, buy a new car or change their job) for the sake of reducing their fuel consumption. There was no serious environmental argument for the tax. The more glaring problem is the dismissal of the resistance to the tax as ‘anti-environment’. No serious revolutionary strategy can afford to overlook one of the central nodes of resistance to the state machinery in France, especially when climate justice and decarbonisation depend precisely on that resistance gaining ground.

Thinking in terms of consumption per capita can be useful for painting a picture of global inequality. But it’s a dead-end for questions of left strategy. A programme for climate justice will have to take its cues from questions of exploitation and oppression, not abstractions that naturalise the current order.


Book now for:

Endgames: Capitalism and the Climate Emergency
A day of anticapitalist discussion on the politics of the climate emergency.

9.30-17.00, 26 October 2019
Elvin Hall, Institute of Education, London WC1H 0AL

Free professional childcare
£10 waged • £5 unwaged • £20 solidarity (help fund unwaged tickets and childcare)
Organised by rs21


  1. Further reading:

    “Getting to net zero in time, something that is crucial and really not negotiable, and having to do so with the scarce resources that we have, means reducing consumption within the Global North. At this point the argument appears as the standard environmental story of overconsumption: there is too much being consumed, both directly by household and indirectly through production processes. What needs to be stressed is that most people are “locked” into high carbon social reproduction. The problem with stories of overconsumption is that consumption is made out to be a matter of choice.”


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