If we want to protect the natural environment we absolutely need to become conscious consumers. The choices we make have a direct impact on demand and directly influence industrial production. That said, it is important to realize that we can not solve the ecological crisis solely through our choices as consumers. Here’s why.
Let’s take the example of deforestation. Forests will always have economic value and as long as there are no laws that explicitly protect these ecosystems the industries will always find a way to wreck them to make money. We can boycott palm oil and we should do it, but even if we imagine a world where nobody consumes it, industries will find another way of exploiting the resources of the forest or the resources of the soil which lays below. Meat consumption is another example. It is essential that we reduce our consumption of meat because deforestation in the Amazon is caused mainly by the production of livestock feed. But even if the demand for soybeans and beef drops drastically, the Brazilian government can allow corporations to exploit the forest for a different purpose. They will always find another way of converting the riches of the forest and the soil into profit for the shareholders.
Our power as consumers has limits that we can only overcome by using our power as citizens. We must convince our politicians that protecting the environment is the most pressing issue of our time and that they must take urgent and effective action. And this political action is not limited to the borders of our countries, we can not only influence the laws of the US or the EU, but we can also have an impact on the policy in Brazil or in Indonesia for example. That is why diplomacy and international organizations exist. We must demand that our governments use all economic and diplomatic means to cooperate and support countries that are home to the majority of Earth’s biodiversity. All governments must join forces to protect the natural environment effectively. They must recognize the value of living ecosystems, because currently an ecosystem has economic value only when it is destroyed. We need to recognize that beyond forests, oil, palm oil and soy or animal flesh, ecosystems create enormous wealth in the form of water, oxygen and climate stability. These kinds of changes can only be made through international laws and treaties and we can not influence policy on such scales as consumers.
This does not mean that we should not do our best to consume consciously and in a minimalist way, these are absolutely indispensable parts of the solution. But we can not limit ourselves to them. We will never solve the ecological crisis unless we use all the democratic mechanisms at our disposal. And this means that voting is not enough, we need to actively engage with our elected officials. We need to lobby for the health of our environment just as vigorously as the corporations are lobbying for their profits.