Posted by: r.m. | April 12, 2012

individualization of environmental ills

Every time I show the documentary ‘an inconvenient truth,’  i discuss how the last few minutes of the documentary are deeply problematic. Climate change cannot be resolved by changing the light bulbs.  We cannot resolve institutional problems that have led to such horrific environmental problems through individual action.

This morning, I began reading a book entitled ‘Environmental Sociology: from analysis to action’ and I went directly to the chapter entitled ‘Individualization: Plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?’ by Michael Maniates.

The chapter is excellent. 

The book and the chapter itself are available on ebooks here – and the abridged version of the chapter is available savetheworld[1]


“When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political
power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society—to, in other words, “think institutionally” …We are
individualizing responsibility when we agonize over the “paper or plastic” choice at the checkout counter, knowing somehow that neither is right given larger institutions and social structures. We think aloud with the neighbor over the back fence about whether we should buy the new Honda or Toyota hybridengine automobile now or wait a few years until they work the kinks out, when really what we wish for is clean, effucient, and effective public transportation of the sort we read about in science fiction novels when we were young—but which we can’t vote for with our consumer dollars since, for reasons rooted in power and politics, it’s not for sale.

… Confronting the consumption problem demands, after all, the sort of institutional thinking that the individualization of responsibility patently undermines. It calls too for individuals to understand themselves as citizens in a participatory democracy first, working together to change broader policy and larger social institutions, and as consumers second. By contrast, the individualization of responsibility, because it characterizes environmental problems as the consequence of destructive consumer choice, asks that individuals imagine themselves as consumers first and citizens second.”

Although Maniates discusses the US, the same situation applies wherever NGOs push individual action over political action. Lebanon is but one example.  The same situation applies also where NGOs are encouraged to take over state responsibilities rather than push for institutational transformation.

Check it out.

P.S. Maniates also conducted a preliminary survey work in 2010 which suggesed that students with a  passion for environmental problems command a heightened natural-science understanding of world.  They are afflicted, however, by an emaciated and ultimately self-defeating sense of how social change occurs.  Environmental science and studies programs are systematically reluctant to address this shortcoming, perhaps for fear of being seen as training ‘environmentalists’ rather than ‘objective’ environmental scientists.  This work hearkens back to earlier survey research on environmental studies programs, reported in “Environmental Studies: The Sky is Not Falling” (BioScience).

What do you think?



  1. This is a great post, thanks. It shows the clarity of mind that Lebanese (environmentalists) have.

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