Zero-waste, plastic-free and sustainable living.

Zero waste, plastic free and sustainable living – The mass consciousness raising methods of the climate justice revolution.

I am a History student and climate justice activist. When I enter a lot of student activist circles and I am asked about my area of study, people often turn their heads at the fact I don’t study Geography or Sustainability. But my degree and studies have allowed me to locate my activism within a much broader timeline of social progress movements, especially revolutions.

Throughout history, revolutions, rebellions, protests and social change have utilised the popular culture and ways of communicating to spread their message. Be it the advent of the printed press capitalised on by the French Revolution, the Russian newspaper ‘Pravda’, or posters and pamphlets as propaganda, every movement and campaign uses certain methods to compel people to action.

I write this the day after returning from COP26, where I attended as both an activist and an observer to the negotiations. You can read more about my experiences here.
But what has come out of COP is, for me, are two things:

  1. It has exposed that world leaders and policy makers will refuse to listen and act on the science and are guiding our planet to destruction for the sake of profit.
  2. That social and climate justice movements have so much more power and energy when united.

Unlike many social movements of the past, this one is truly global and inherently transnational. A common debate in the climate change movement is ‘individual vs system change’ – and which has more impact.

To echo George Monbiot, this focus on plastic and individualism is ‘surface tension’. It is just a distraction from us mobilising to take on the system. It is no use us being green consumers, we are still trashing the planet, and the only way we will stop trashing the planet is by acting as citizens, not consumers. However, what this argument lacks is how we get there. One factor of how we arrive at the position of mass mobilisation and interest in the climate crisis is through individual choice and lifestyle change, not as a final destination, but as a means of raising what I’d call, ‘climate consciousness’.

When Marx referred to class consciousness in 1848, in the context of the need for the proletariat to realise their position in society and thus be compelled to take action, he was referring to political consciousness. What Marx meant is that it’s man’s place within society that ultimately determines how he thinks and not the other way round. Indeed, class consciousness is the set of beliefs that a person holds regarding their social class or economic rank in society, the structure of their class, and their class interests. 

In the context of the climate justice movement, however, our small lifestyle changes, like filling plastic bottles up with washing detergent at a zero waste shop, recycling, boycotting fast fashion and remembering our canvas bag, are all ways of connecting ourselves to the climate crisis on a daily basis. While these actions in themselves will not save us from exponential warming and climate change-induced extreme weather events, what these actions will do is to connect the dots. And, hopefully, let other people make connections. But don’t give into big corporations telling you another ‘10 things YOU can do to save the planet’.

Every time we step into the local independent shop instead of the supermarket, we resist big corporations. Obviously, the intersectionalities of accessing a plastic free/ vegan/ zero waste lifestyle are incredibly significant. But for those of us who do have the ability to make small changes, we only make it more accessible, and raise awareness about the extreme injustice of the convenience of environmentally damaging products, making others question why it is more expensive to buy bananas without a wrapper, and thus, the consciousness raising train continues to plod along.

Of course, making these lifestyle changes in isolation of demanding governments and corporations divest from fossil fuels and invest in protecting the most vulnerable communities on the frontlines, and cancelling debts to allow countries in the Global South to even gain basic human rights and the return of their autonomy, is meaningless.

But alongside organising, marching and campaigning, we can vote with our purchases and plastic-free purchases. We can boycott companies. We can buy locally. These not only help internally as we transition from consumers to citizens, but are subconscious ways of spreading awareness about the climate crisis with our kin. For example, when I turned up at my family BBQ and ate my plant-based burgers, I ended up having an argument with my uncle about climate change. When I remember my canvas bag at the supermarket, I can have a discussion about the price of plastic bags. Hopefully, in the longer term, that helps keep the discussion going and get people on board en masse.

Especially after COP, where our governments had the last chance to take radical action, we must demand radical change. But leaving a space where I felt normal in my demands for radical system change back to my University town, I’ve realised we still have a lot more work to do. Zero waste living and sustainability hashtags are not the answer. But they’re ways that we can all in a small way contribute to starting the conversations with those reluctant to engage in the radical system change we need to see to avert flooding, drought and famine becoming even more frequent. With Christmas just around the corner, we can all use the opportunity of gift-giving to raise a little bit of consciousness.

Emma de Saram

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