The Impact Consumerism Has on Global Warming and Climate Change

Understanding and Resisting the Pull of Consumer Culture

A Chinese man wears a mask to guard against air pollution in Beijing. Much of Eastern and Central China is regularly blanketed by a thick smog caused by coal power plants and industrial production, both of which fuel global warming and climate change, direct results of consumer culture.
A Chinese man wears a mask as he waits to cross the road near the CCTV building during heavy smog on November 29, 2014 in Beijing, China. United States President Barack Obama and China's president Xi Jinping agreed on a plan to limit carbon emissions by their countries, which are the world's two biggest polluters, at a summit in Beijing earlier in the month. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In May 2014, two new climate change studies were published, showing that the catastrophic collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is underway, and has been for over two decades. The melting of this sheet is significant because it acts as a linchpin for other glaciers and ice sheets in Antarctica that will, in turn, melt over time. Ultimately, the melting of the south polar ice cap will raise sea levels globally by as much as ten to thirteen feet, adding on to the sixty-nine feet of sea level rise that scientists have already attributed to human activity. A 2014 report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we are underprepared for extreme climate events, as has been demonstrated by deadly heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires.

Yet, there is a troubling gap between the serious reality depicted by climate change science and the level of concern among the U.S. public. An April 2014 Gallup Poll found that, while most U.S. adults view climate change as a problem, only 14 percent believe that the implications of climate change have reached a “crisis” level. A full third of the population believe that climate change is not a problem at all. Sociologist Riley Dunlap, who conducted the poll, also found that self-identified political liberals and moderates are far more concerned about the impacts of climate change than are conservatives.

But, regardless of political inclinations, worry and action are two different things. Across the U.S., meaningful action in response to this harsh reality is scant. Research shows clearly that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--now at an unprecedented 401.57 parts per million--is a direct result of the process of capitalist industrialization that has unfolded since the late 18th century. Climate change is a direct consequence of the widespread, now globalized, mass production and consumption of goods, and of the material construction of our habitat that has accompanied it. Yet, despite this reality, production and construction continue unabated.

How Consumerism Shapes Our Impact on the Climate

It's hard to accept that things need to change. As people who live in a society of consumers, who are steeped in consumerist way of life, we are socially, culturally, economically, and psychologically invested in this system. Our everyday life experiences, our relationships with friends and loved ones, our practices of leisure and amusement, and our personal goals and identities are all organized around practices of consumption. Many of us measure our self-worth by how much money we make, and by the quantity, quality, and newness of stuff we are able to buy. Most of us, even if we are critically aware of the implications of production, consumption, and waste, can’t help but want more. We are inundated with advertising so clever that it now follows us around the internet and pushes notifications of sales to our smartphones while we shop.

We are socialized to consume, and so, when it comes down to it, we don’t really want to respond to climate change. According to the Gallup poll, most of us are willing to acknowledge that it is a problem that must be addressed, but it seems that we expect someone else to do that work. Sure, some of us have made lifestyle adjustments, but how many of us are involved in forms of collective action and activism that work productively toward social, political, and economic change? Most of us tell ourselves that achieving large-scale, long-term change is the work of the government or corporations, but not us.

What Fighting Climate Change Really Means

If we believed that a systemic response to climate change was an equally shared responsibility, was our responsibility, we would be responding to it. We would cast aside the mostly symbolic responses, given their marginal impact, of recycling, banning plastic shopping bags, swapping incandescent for halogen lightbulbs, purchasing “sustainable” and “green” consumer goods, and driving less. We would recognize that the solution to the dangers of global climate change cannot be found within the very system that has caused the problem. We would, instead, recognize that the system of capitalist production and consumption is the problem. We would renounce the values of this system, and foster new values oriented to sustainable living.

Until we do that, we’re all climate change deniers. We may recognize that it exists, but most of us are not protesting in the streets. We might have made some modest adjustments to it, but we’re not giving up our consumer lifestyle.

Most of us are in stark denial of our complicity in the changing climate. We are in denial of our responsibility to facilitate the necessary social, cultural, economic, and political changes that could begin to stem the tide of catastrophe. However, meaningful change is possible, but it will only happen if we make it so.

To learn about how sociologists are addressing climate change, read this report from the American Sociological Association's Task Force on Climate Change.