For 10 or 15 years beginning in the 1990s such consumer-driven environmentalism was a constant refrain, leading to endless disputations about paper towels and disposable diapers versus sponges and cotton nappies. When I picked up this book, I feared it might go down the same cul-de-sacs, but it doesn’t, and for the obvious reason: That earlier campaign was essentially useless. Some fairly small percentage of people read those books, and an even smaller percentage took regular and clear action. Those people are morally consistent heroes whom we should all salute, but it turns out there are not enough of them to make a difference. Everyone else continued to stream Netflix, buy cashmere and use air-conditioning, which meant that the amount of carbon pouring into the atmosphere kept increasing, and the temperature kept rising. And those of us working to contain this environmental disaster increasingly turned our attention to systems, and to the powerful actors within them.
To go back to goats for a moment, as Schlossberg says, “it is not the fault of the consumer that cashmere is cheap, and it’s not wrong to want nice things or to buy them, sometimes. … It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden … or governments should make sure they act responsibly.”
Governments and corporations, of course, don’t do such things automatically — they need citizens to push them. But it doesn’t require every citizen to push in order to make change (since apathy cuts both ways, social scientists estimate that getting 3 or 4 percent of people involved in a movement is often enough to force systemic change, whereas if they acted solely as consumers that same number would have relatively little effect). You can obviously do both, and all of us should try — but fighting for the Green New Deal makes more mathematical sense than trying to take on the planet one commodity at a time.
And that, interestingly, is where Schlossberg seems to come out, even as she conducts her rambling tour of each of those commodities. When she writes about fuel, for instance, she goes into great detail: Whether Uber rides displace car trips or bus trips turns out to be both important and vexingly difficult to determine, for instance. But in the end, the changes we make in our transportation lives will matter mostly if we make them “as a collective.” That is to say, instead of trying to figure out every single aspect of our lives, a carbon tax would have the effect of informing every one of those decisions, automatically and invisibly. The fuel efficiency standards that the Obama administration put forward and Trump is now gutting would result in stunningly different outcomes. And so on.