Are consumer purchases an act of political rebellion?

Tesla Model S Consumer Reports top pick 2015
Screen capture CR

The last time that unapologetically pro-fossil fuel politicians were in the ascendency, was just about the same time that the Toyota Prius started being a regular fixture on our nation's roads. I know of more than one person who bought one as a direct response to the US pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol.

This always used to rub me up the wrong way. After all, shopping and voting are not the same thing, and I continue to believe that if we allow consumer activism to serve as a proxy for civic engagement, we will quickly discover the limits of our purchase power.

Anand Giridharadas would appear to share my misgivings on overhyping the shopping-as-activism approach:

That said, I do think that alongside the perhaps unprecedented outpouring of activism and engagement we are seeing around the world, our consumer muscle also has a lot of power. Consider these facts:

Kicking gas is possible

We have more options than ever before for reducing or even eliminating our direct gasoline use. Whether it's a cheap, used Nissan Leaf or a Tesla Model 3, a solar-powered trike or an electric bicycle, there are solutions for most budgets and a wide range of lifestyles.

Slashing energy use is easy
Reducing fossil fuel use in our homes is also way easier than it was 10 years ago. From smart thermostats that do save energy (sorry Lloyd!) to a growing number of Passivhauses (you're welcome Lloyd!), from cheap and ubiquitous LEDs to heat pump dryers—not to mention the plummeting costs of solar power—many of the technologies we cover were expensive, niche oddities only a decade ago.

We know who we buy from
It's also easier than ever to support businesses doing good. Whether it's Google going 100% renewable or Patagonia donating all Black Friday sales to the environment, the scale and ambition of corporate responsibility/activism has changed in the last ten years. True, no company is an angel (I am sure some folks reading this will have questions about using a Tesla image!). And companies that excel in one aspect may lag behind in another. But the fact is that we now have more information at our fingertips about the companies we choose to patronize. And we can allow our own values to guide us in our decisions.

You'll notice I focus much of my attention specifically on purchases that impact energy demand. The reason for this is simple: that's where our best leverage lies, and leverage is more important than your personal carbon footprint. Small shifts in economic demand can have a big impact in corporate (and political) behavior when it comes to energy. It only took a 10% cut in coal demand to radically slash the coal industry's credit worthiness, and hence prospects for expansion.

We don't need consumer behavior to eliminate fossil fuels entirely—we just need enough of a shift to undermine Big Energy's profit projections, and thus begin to unravel its political capital. A recent report from the influential folks at Carbon Tracker suggests that a combination of widespread electric vehicle adoption and cheaper solar power could see oil and coal demand peaking as early as 2020, and after that happens, the kind of disruption that Tony Seba talks about is much more easy to envision.

Tags: Activism | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles

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