It feels very empowering to use our leverage as consumers and boycott products and industries that are detrimental to the environment. This step is absolutely necessary to the resolution of the ecological crisis but it’s much less effective than some people and environmental organizations think. Let’s see why it’s insufficient, and then talk about why its nevertheless absolutely necessary.
A couple of problems
If we focus on boycotting a product, a government or a corporation, we might be fooled by thinking that we’re doing enough, and we won’t look for other paths of action. Some people even think that boycott is a more effective type of solution than political action. The logic goes along those lines:
“If everybody would simply boycott palm oil, deforestation in Indonesia wouldn’t be a problem anymore .”
The forests will always have value
The biggest problem with boycott is that it doesn’t imply a fundamental restructuring of our economies, while that’s what we need to solve the crisis. Let’s imagine the best case scenario for boycotting palm oil, although it would work for other products like cacao, meat, avocados etc. Let’s imagine that we manage to organize the most successful boycott campaign and we end up blocking palm oil production completely. A very big percentage of people decide to boycott it and don’t buy any palm oil products whatsoever. This is practically impossible, but let’s try to imagine what would happen. Obviously, this scenario sounds really good, almost too good. The problem is that the forests are still going to maintain their high value. Maybe they won’t be transformed into palm oil plantations, but the country that is depending on this income will find another way to convert the forest from a living resource to a financial resource. Before we know it, the government is going to give permission to another type of corporation to extract and commodify the riches of the forest. The ecosystem has such a high economic value that we can be sure that it will be used for something else. If they don’t sell the wood or grow another crop, they might as well start selling and shipping the soil itself.
Markets care about profit
The fundamental problem with boycott is that it doesn’t solve the political climate which sets the conditions where destroying nature is allowed and even extremely profitable. Unregulated capitalism is always going to generate wealth faster than a system where reasonable environmental regulations are in place. Currently, a country that chooses to protect its forests is dooming itself to fail to compete on the global market. Unless there are strict, binding, international treaties the future of the forests is going to be in jeopardy.
Boycott is absolutely necessary
We can’t demand radical political change without being willing to give up some level of comfort, luxury or convenience. If nobody is willing to give up cheap palm oil cookies, eating chocolate or meat every day the political solutions that we demand are going to be inadequate and insufficient. We will never be able to implement serious political solutions if nobody is willing to make sacrifices. A new treaty might end up increasing the price of chocolate or meat enough to reduce the demand for these products substantially. But such a treaty will be met with big resistance from people unwilling to make this sacrifice for the health environment. We have to be ready to make the lifestyle changes that we would like to implement on a broader scale through legislation. And of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the market, the demand does drive the offer and we can influence what producers make by buying fewer products that we deem unethical. In fact, it’s absolutely essential to boycott products that are fundamentally unsustainable on large scales. We can’t change phones every year, travel by plane five times a year, feed ourselves on exclusively on avocados and meat, while demanding serious political change. If we’re ready for the transition that we want, we need to embody it.