An increasingly dominant, largely American response to the contemporary environmental crisis understands environmental degradation as the product of individual shortcomings and finds solutions in enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice. Several forces promote this process of individualization, including the historical baggage of mainstream environmentalism, the core tenets of liberalism, the dynamic ability of capitalism to commodify dissent, and the relatively recent rise of global environmental threats to human prosperity. The result is to narrow our collective ability to imagine and pursue a variety of productive responses to the environmental problems before us. 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. Confronting consumption requires individuals to understand themselves not primarily as consumers but rather as citizens in a participatory democracy, working together to change broader policy and larger social institutions. It also requires linking explorations of consumption to politically charged issues that challenge the political imagination.
I thank Thomas Princen, Benjamin Slote, Richard Bowden, and Brian Hill for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.