|megpie71 (megpie71) wrote,|
@ 2018-02-15 07:41:00
Ethical Living and the Signalling of Economic Virtue
The Guardian here in Australia has a new series of articles (Life Swaps) they've started about "how to live more sustainably". So far there's been two articles published, one on better food choices, and one on fashion choices. They're pretty much what you'd expect of this sort of thing - largely about how to spend more money in the pursuit of a better lifestyle, and they're an excellent example of the genre of article I've come to think of as "middle class left-wing virtue signalling".
That is, they're largely aimed at people who are part of the well-off middle classes - the advice generally starts with something about how to switch your consumer choices (buying organic food rather than the stuff in the supermarkets or greengrocers; buying "ethically produced" clothing rather than going to the nearest department store). These "ethical" and "sustainable" choices are generally more expensive than the regular option, and they may require a greater personal transit time, and certainly require more time and effort seeking them out in order to be able to purchase them.
Then we switch to the advice on "doing it yourself", which generally requires either time, skills, monetary resources, or all three. For example: in the article about sustainable food choices, there's advice to grow your own. Now, this is admirable, but it ignores a lot of the realities of life. Firstly, "growing your own" produce is not something you're going to be able to do first time up to bat. Gardening is a skill, and it's a thing which takes years of sustained investment of time and effort into a single space in order to be productive. Plus, of course, the whole thing with a lot of garden plants is this: preparing "home grown" vegetables to the point of edibility takes extra time - you have to scrub your root crops to remove soil, you have to remove the tough outer leaves from various brassicas, you have to shell peas and beans and similar, you have to thresh and hull grains. What we see in the shop is generally the easy-to-use form (and by the time it's reached the frozen food aisle, the food has been processed to a fairly solid degree, so it's got to the point where you can just heat and eat).
Then there's the "save money by gentrifying this poverty behaviour" advice - where effectively a piece of behaviour which generally performed by people who are on very low incomes (such as foraging for free food, going to op shops to buy used clothing) is held up to people in the middle classes as a way of saving them money and being more "sustainable" in the first place. Which is all very well, but one of the problems with all forms of gentrification (real-estate, cuisine, behavioural) is they basically push out the people who were living in those places, eating that food, performing those behaviours because they literally could not afford anything else. When you have a bundle of well-to-do middle class types foraging the produce off street trees, roadside verges, or abandoned farms, this means people who are homeless (and who could genuinely use this free food) can't access it. When you have the well-to-do middle classes going through op-shops looking for their "bargain" purchases and "finds", the prices of op-shop clothing go up such that the people who were looking there for their everyday clothing because they couldn't afford to buy new, now can't afford even second-hand clothing.
Now, my big argument with these sorts of articles is firstly, they're not precisely all that useful for anyone outside their immediate target audience, and secondly, the advice doesn't scale. The actions they encourage are, if taken up widely, often going to cause far more problems than they solve. There's also a layer of underlying classism and ableism involved - these articles are very definitely written for an audience who are able-bodied, neurotypical, and who have enough disposable income that they're not going to suffer if, for example, their clothing budget multiplies fivefold for a single item, or their food budget doubles. The people being targeted by these articles have enough spare time to be able to afford to take on extra tasks, are able to spare the time and fuel to get to specialist stores which aren't necessarily close to where they are and where appropriate merchandise may not be easy to discover. It's not precisely a sustainable pattern for the wider community.
For example, they recommend going to shops which sell organic produce. Well, that's all well and good - but I went googling for organic greengrocers in my home city (the exact string was "organic greengrocers Perth Western Australia") and came up with a list of about eight places, in a city of about a million people. The nearest one to me was about fifteen minutes drive away. By contrast, my local supermarket (which does carry a small range of organic produce, at about twice the price of the inorganic stuff) is about two minutes drive away at most, and there's a specialist greengrocer (not necessarily organic produce, but still specialist produce store) in the same mall. So, I have the choice of paying more for the produce, more for the petrol required to get to and from the nearest organic greengrocer to where I am (and I'm not in an outer suburb - I'm actually in a suburb which used to be part of the City of Perth until the 1990s), taking an extra thirty minutes travel on top of the shopping time (and this is just for the fruit and vegetable produce alone; I'd still have to head out to the supermarket for the rest of the groceries) and putting more pollutants into the atmosphere, or I can just go down to the local Coles supermarket, and get the produce I want there at the same time as the rest of my shopping, at a more reasonable cost, and with a lower expenditure of time and fuel. (There's also the consideration that I find shopping to be highly stressful, for a collection of reasons I'm not going to bore you with, and thus making just the one trip to do all the shopping is a lot less personally wearing for me).
If you go looking at the various retailers of "ethical" clothing which are recommended in their article, you quickly come up against another problem as well: none of them go higher than a women's size 14 in their general clothing ranges. So if you want to follow the advice in these articles, you need to be acceptably slender as well - anyone who isn't firmly on the left-hand-side of the sizing bell curve need not apply.
Which basically brings the whole "virtue-signalling" subtext of these articles right out into the open: this advice is something which is only applicable to those who are already aware of their virtuous nature within the socio-economic moral framework, and who wish to be able to display said virtue before others as a status marker. Which means the virtue involved is more performative than actual. Once you realise this last point - these articles are more about performative virtue signalling rather than encouraging actual virtuous behaviour performed out of a genuine desire to do good deeds and reduce one's footprint on the planet, the overall impracticality of the advice in these articles stops being a bug, and starts being a feature. Of course they're not going to recommend changes anyone could make, or options anyone could take up, regardless of socio-economic status, employment status, disability status or whatever. They're going to stick with options which are relatively prestigious, and things which are the equivalent of designer couture hair shirts.
The problem with virtue-signalling is it has a lot to do with perceptions of virtuous thought, and not much to do with actual virtuous behaviour. So you can have the wonderful paradox of recommending people "live a more sustainable lifestyle" by spending more time driving to and from the few organic grocery stores in their city (and thus requiring more extraction of limited supplies of petro-chemicals, and putting more CO2 into the atmosphere, adding to the existing problems of global warming and climate change) in order to buy organic groceries; rather than, for example, continuing to shop at the nearest supermarket, but reducing the amount of food waste they produce in the first place by not buying as much produce which then rots in the crisper bin. It's easier to recommend people buy clothing from ethical manufacturers than asking them to re-think their purchases in the first place. Do people really need a wardrobe which is bulging with clothing they never wear, or wear once and never wear again? It's easier to do both of these things than it is to question the core assumptions of consumerist capitalism.
The thing about living a genuinely sustainable lifestyle is this: you have to start by discarding the assumptions of late-stage consumerist capitalism. You can't buy another one. You can't afford it. You don't need it - or if you do genuinely need it, you'll have to scrape and save and make it last as long as possible. You can't just throw it out when it isn't fashionable - indeed, fashion is the last thing you can afford to think about at this point. Wherever possible, you need to make it yourself, grow it yourself, fix it yourself.
I'm sorry to say this, but there is no genuinely long-term sustainable way of living a socially comfortable middle-class lifestyle in a late-stage consumerist capitalist society. It requires too many of the planet's resources expended on a single person to be sustainable in any way, shape or form. So it doesn't matter how much you perform the "virtue" of living a "sustainable" lifestyle in this way - you aren't going to save the planet, and you aren't "doing your bit". Wear your locally-sourced ethically designed hair shirt if you must, but don't pretend it makes you so much better than the rest of us.
The next article in this series is due out on Saturday. I'll be interested to see what it's about, and how it tackles the subject. I'm willing to bet there's going to be at least one on transport, which will recommend buying an electric car rather than a petrol-driven one as the "sustainable" choice; recommend cycling as the "do-it-yourself" alternative, and which may mention public transport in the "gentrification" option, but will probably be more likely to recommend the real-estate version of "gentrification" instead - getting yourself a nice place in a near-inner-city suburb which is close to your workplace.
This entry was originally posted at https://megpie71.dreamwidth.org/112976.h